The World of John McShain

The World of John McShain

September 01, 1998

Over the past several years, many public-policy organizations in Washington and elsewhere have been moving into spiffy, modern new headquarters. The Cato Institute’s building, for instance, has become a virtual landmark on Massachusetts Avenue. And, if you ever find yourself in Midland, Michigan, you should certainly see the Mackinac Center’s shiny new digs.

None of that fancy stuff is for us poor working stiffs at CEI, however. Our offices are in a rather non-descript building right on Connecticut and K in Washington, by which thousands pass each day with barely a glance. Nevertheless, each morning as I enter the building, I can’t help but notice a rather prominent inscription on the cornerstone: "John McShain, Builder, 1952." While little noticed now, someone was proud enough of the structure 46 years ago to put his name on it for all to see.

And perhaps with good reason. In 1952, the entire K Street area was being rapidly transformed from a neighborhood of Victorian townhomes into a district of modern office buildings. "Gucci Gulch," home to a generation of Washington lawyers and lobbyists, was being born.

As detailed in a recent Washington Post article, CEI’s building epitomizes the architecture of that period. But more noteworthy than the architecture are the social and economic changes that the building represents. In 1952, the federal government was wrapping up two decades of explosive growth first under Franklin Roosevelt’s "New Deal," then under Harry Truman’s "Fair Deal." While the government had been a rather limited affair, it was quickly becoming Leviathan. Its budget grew over 3,000 percent during those 20 years, and a host of "alphabet soup" regulatory agencies ranging from the FCC to the SEC were born. The federal government’s potential power seemed unlimited, as evidenced that year by President Truman’s nationalization of the nation’s steel industry and the Supreme Court’s approval of that step.

To many, Dwight Eisenhower’s election in November of 1952 represented the last, best chance to undo this trend. But, although Eisenhower railed against the growth of government during the campaign, in the end he was only able to slow that growth, not stop it. The federal government continued to expand for a generation.

The construction of the K Street corridor was a physical manifestation of this change. In a sense, the lobbyists and lawyers feeding off the federal government were moving out of their temporary quarters and building permanent, lasting edifices. They were announcing that they were here to stay, and stay they did.

Today, we think that we may finally have another chance to reverse the federal government’s growth and roll back the regulatory state. Of course, on a day-to-day basis, we may despair of the task. But compared to the situation faced by John McShain’s contemporaries in 1952, we have a much easier job. Most importantly, government intervention in the economy is no longer an untried panacea. We have had over 50 years experience with Leviathan and over 50 years of failure. Put another way, it is no longer a sleek new idea. It’s an idea that, like the building, looks old, tired and a little shabby around the edges.

As we at CEI continue our work, we have no plans to move out of our quarters on Connecticut and K. In fact, we’re expanding, moving our growing staff into two additional suites this month. And we can’t help but enjoy the irony that we might yet win our battle from the place where, in a way, it began.