In his opening remarks for the latest entry in our ongoing debate about public financing for science, Timothy Sandefur suggests that after this post, we move on to concluding remarks. That strikes me as a reasonably good idea (and not just because he's generously offered me the last word). We may not have yet reached a point where we're talking past each other, but we're definitely getting dangerously close to that point.
After reading through Tim's latest post, I'm going to respond to his points out of order. I'm going to start out by looking at the more concrete examples that we've been looking at: the internet, and environmental research. Sandefur writes:
What's more, Dunford tried to use the Internet as an example of the necessity of government to fund innovation because private industry wouldn't do it. He writes "No one company expended--or had to expend--the tremendous research and development funding required to develop the basic foundation of the internet." But in fact private industry often develops basic, foundational technologies; it routinely performs research to develop new technological and scientific platforms for innovation and development. Sadly, given the nature of our mixed economy, there are no examples of this being done without some government intervention. But everything from the telephone to radio to television to the automobile to the airplane--these things have been developed overwhelmingly by private enterprise, doing research and development in fundamental ways without significant government intervention. Private industry invented MS-DOS and the GUI interface, both foundational technologies. The development of the airplane was done not only without government help, but in direct competition with the government, and that technology required significant scientific advances that were done by private industry. Look at what has been done with it today! The steam engine was developed almost independently of government intervention. Look what happened to it. The Xerox machine...well, this list could go on.
In the case of the internet, I think we do have at least some evidence that suggests that private industry was not able - or at least as able - to get the ball rolling on something along the lines of the internet. Through most of the 1980s and early 1990s, there were multiple companies that were running online information services (America Online and CompuServe were the two biggies there). The services did OK for a while, but they were ultimately crippled by one of the free-market side-effects: they weren't very inter-compatible.
Each of the companies that was providing online services had its own software and its own standards. These companies could have teamed up to come up with a common standard that would allow their users to access each others content. In fact, they had well over a decade of independent operation, and could have moved toward interconnectivity at any time. They chose not to.
Had they made a different choice, there's a chance that this might be a very different argument. But I don't think it's a very big chance. The companies did not move toward interconnectivity because they didn't see a financial motivation to do so. The users weren't demanding interconnectivity (yet), and it would really have taken supernatural powers to predict how the internet would change everything.
Later on, when the users were demanding interconnectivity, AOL, CompuServe, and the other service providers elected to connect to the internet instead of trying to come up with their own alternative. The government did not force them to integrate their services with the internet. They chose to do so.
And it's not a surprise that they did. The internet, at that point, was still largely the result of various government initiatives. By the time the commercial online companies were looking to tie into it, the internet had huge advantages over any attempt to come up with a commercial alternative. By the early 1990s, the protocols were in place, they were available for anyone's use, and no one company or organization had a proprietary interest in the foundational structure. The freedom that's provided by this unique infrastructure is what enabled the massive expansion of the internet over the last 15 or so years.
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