The other day I got a “Dear Friend” letter from Malcolm Forbes asking for a contribution to the Reagan Presidential Library. It raises all sorts of questions. For instance, does Malcolm Forbes really think of me as a friend? Where has he been all this time? A friend in need is a friend indeed, Mr. Forbes, and I’ve got two daughters to send to college: How about if I contribute to your foundation and you kick into mine? Shall we say 5 percent of annual income?

But leave aside the fact that my new friend could build this edifice from his pocket change, if he really thinks we need it. Let’s ask a fundamental question that the letter doesn’t really address: Why in heaven’s name should there be a Reagan Presidential Library?

Well (I hear you say), Kennedy has a library, Johnson has one, and Nixon, even Carter. True, all true. If Reagan had no library, he would not be in the company of these worthies. He would be libraryless with the likes of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, men to whom the idea of a presidential library somehow didn’t occur. (Can you imagine John Adams’ pals hustling funds by direct mail?)

Ah, but (as Forbes’s letter puts it) “Think what rich repositories for history and sources of perspective we’d have if there had been libraries for our earliest Presidents! They would be treasuries valuable beyond measure.” Yeah. Think what prodigies of scholarship we would witness at the Martin Van Buren Presidential Library, the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library, the William Henry Harrison Presidential Library, the—well, you get the idea.

There are many reasons to oppose this well-meant but ill-considered enterprise. There is, in the first place, the libertarian argument—obvious (as usual), but overlooked (also as usual). The $45 million to buy the land and build the building is to be raised from private contributions, more or less voluntary, but that’s just the beginning. The annual budget to operate this show is bound to be well up in seven figures, probably eight—not chickenfeed, outside the Beltway—and that money will come from the public coffers. From you and me, that is. Like it or not. Forever.

Why are presidential libraries thought to be an appropriate use of public monies and open space? They serve no useful scholarly purpose. What could possibly be in an Andrew Johnson Presidential Library in Greenville, Tennessee, that is not more conveniently available somewhere else under the present dispensation? Future historians studying our times will already have to cheek in at presidential libraries in Boston, Austin, San Clemente, Atlanta, and—where is the Ford Library, anyway? Grand Rapids? Aspen? I guess I could look it up. (If there isn’t one, I’ll take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about the man.) Adding Palo Alto to the list wouldn’t hurt much—just another few hundred bucks on the historian’s NEH grant. But it wouldn’t help either.

Of course, we shouldn’t think of these libraries as simple repositories. They are, above all, monuments to presidential ego. And that is disturbing. Maybe our Presidents have always thought of themselves as demigods entitled to pyramids maintained at public expense, but, if so, they kept their opinions on this matter to themselves for the republic’s first century and a half A healthy public opinion would have hooted them down. Where did we go wrong? Whatever happened to republican simplicity?

There is also the otherwise delightful fact that Presidents come and go every four years, or eight. If each President gets a library (and the nation survives), in a couple of hundred years the countryside will be littered with these structures, each with its complement of chantry priests and lay brothers. And the whole creaking, groaning apparatus will be supported by levies on the toil of an urban peasantry too ignorant to reflect that the system swept away at the Reformation only took 10 percent.

Moreover, obviously, not every President will deserve a monument. In 50 years, our grandchildren will wonder why we bothered to memorialize some of those we already have. We shouldn’t rush into these things, as any graduate of Warren G. Harding High School could tell you. I like Teddy Roosevelt, but he does look a little silly on Mount Rushmore, and “Cape Kennedy” was quietly dropped when it became indelicate to refer to the Kennedys and water in the same breath.

I don’t mean to pick on Ronald Reagan. In this, he’s just acting like a typical modern President. But he disappoints me when he acts that way, because sometimes I’ve almost believed that he isn’t one. I would rejoice—many Americans would rejoice—if he would drop Malcolm Forbes a note. “Dear Friend,” he could say: “Thank you for your efforts to build a library to house my papers, but I’ve decided to put them in the Library of Congress, where related materials will be more conveniently available. A businessman like you will recognize the significant economies of scale in putting them there, too, and I like to cut the costs of government when I can. I know the library was meant to be a monument as well, but that’s not an appropriate use of tax money. Why don’t you take what you’ve raised and buy some small arms for the Contras?”

I say Ronald Reagan ought to write this letter. Do you think he will?