Our Government Has Cut Way Back on Sponsoring Research and Development
Economics has been called "the dismal science," but political science might be a stronger contender for this description.
Government is strongly associated with unpleasant things like executions, imprisonment, fines, taxes and — worst of all — wars. But there is a lot more to government than these things.
The essence of government is its right to inflict sanctions — deprivations of life, liberty, or property, as the Constitution puts it — on people who violate its laws.
Sanctions always create involuntary associations, since no one would consent to being deprived of life, liberty or property.
Our basic relationship with government therefore constitutes an involuntary association.
All involuntary associations are bad, but a society without any is impossible. Government is justified because it can be a less bad form of involuntary association than all the others — created by murder, theft, etc. — that would proliferate in its absence.
Once government exists, however, there are many useful things it can do more efficiently than private-voluntary associations can., as well as things that cannot be done privately at all.
Government commonly organizes water and sewer service.
Private competition here would be undesirable. Running duplicate water and sewer pipes would be far more expensive than a monopoly.
But private monopolies require strong governmental regulation to prevent them from gouging the public.
Rather than regulating, it is often simpler for government to provide the service itself.
Roads and bridges are another excellent example of services best provided by government.
If streets were privately owned, we would have to pay the owners each time we used them. It is more efficient to finance them through our taxes.
Protection against inferior services and products is sometimes provided privately.
An example would be Consumer Reports (formerly called Consumer's Union), which tests and reports on many consumer goods.
But regulating more complicated things like airline safety, pure food and drugs, and the like, can best be done by a government agency.
Although private schools can play a vital part, they might not be established everywhere. Government can ensure that schooling is available everywhere to all children, even those whose families cannot afford a private school.
One of the most important things governments can do is to finance research and development of technologies that offer immense long term benefits but which private investors, seeking short-run profit, are not willing to pay for.
As David Leonhardt has noted, the U.S. government financed the original development of radar, computers, and the internet.
Even IBM, ultimately a dominant force in the computer industry, brushed off attempts in the 1930s to get it interested in a computer designed by Howard Aiken, a Harvard graduate student in physics.
Of course nobody then, including experienced IBM executives, could imagine the role that computers would play in today's world.
But when IBM finally got interested in the 1950s, it was excellent at getting computers at scale into practical applications.
There is an important point here. The U.S. government was able to sponsor the basic research leading to radar, computers, and the internet. But it took the vitality of private industry to turn these technologies into major parts of the economy.
A strong government without a strong private sector would be unlikely to develop the full potential of these new technologies.
The Soviet Union had the strong government, but not the healthy private sector, and was very backward in its civilian economy.
According to David Leonhardt our government has now cut way back on sponsoring research and development. It is therefore failing to develop new technologies that could propel us into a better future.
This is too bad.
We have the combination of strong government plus a strong private sector needed for major technological progress.
If we don't wise up, the future may belong to China, with its strong private sector and a strong, albeit undemocratic, government.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981. His most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and other states. Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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