Every so often, the conservative pundit Conn Carroll will emerge from the right-wing cocoon, armed with invincible ignorance, and attempt to trap me with questions that can be refuted with unbelievable ease. It’s one of the things I love most about this job. His last query concerned what would happen if Obamacare’s cost controls failed, “like it’s failing in Mass[achusetts],” to which I pointed out that none of the cost controls in Obamacare have been tried in Massachusetts. The latest serious question hinges on his belief that government-dominated industries never innovate:
Being no expert in the field, but having the working knowledge that comes from living in the actual world rather than the world of Rush Limbaugh’s imagination, I immediately cited defense, aerospace, and biotechnology. I don’t see how you can deny that the progression of military technology from dudes with muskets to tanks and cruise missiles represents innovation. Likewise, we’re definitely better at sending stuff into outer space than we were when NASA was founded in 1958.
Many others have since sprang to mind. Agriculture has been dominated by socialistic regulation for 80 years, which is a terrible policy in my opinion, but certainly hasn’t stopped the industry from developing massively effective productivity improvements. Defense investment obviously includes the development of the Internet. Finance is pretty crony-ist, and I know Carroll agrees, and it’s innovated in a lot of ways I’d call negative, but it’s certainly innovated. The government-directed fracking technology and horizontal drilling. Plus lots more, including “innovations from machine tools to railroads, electricity transmission, transistors, lasers, the internet, GPS, and every aspect of energy exploration and development.”
“What has the government ever done for us?” turns out to be a loaded question with a disappointingly long answer.
There is a lot more history and analysis of government’s role in innovation. While I’d agree that a completely state-dominated economy would probably have less innovation on the whole, it’s pretty obvious that the simplistic libertarian caricature — government can only stifle innovation — bears little resemblance to observed reality.
Carroll, characteristically, is declaring victory anyway:
@jonathanchait your examples are Airbus and $600 toilet seats? I rest my case.— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) January 15, 2014