According to Matt, this sort of development shows that government is or can be a good thing, a source of original and valuable ideas that, even if originally military in conception, will carry over into civilian applications. This is a rebuke (in his view) to those of us, emphatically including yours truly, who don't see government as the cause of any net benefit in human life at all.
I challenged him on this, saying that I think the $2 million involved in the disaster-zone-robot competition would "almost certainly be better spent if left in the hands of the Chinese who lent it."
It is intriguing that when people try to make this kind of point, they so often focus on the military. The manner in which Japan was defeated in 1945 gave rise to a desire (a penitential one, perhaps) to show that atoms could be split for peaceful ends. An effort upon which Japan itself became overly dependent, a fact highlighted by last year's Japanese tsunami.
Matt doesn't want to argue that the Hiroshima/Nagasaki blasts have worked out for the best because they have given us nuclear power plants. Indeed, when I asked him about that point he called it a "very big and very public" mistake.
So the case for government goodness based on Pentagon sponsored inventions comes back to those robots working in disaster zones. The military need for such robots is clear enough. If you bomb a place into rubble you'll want to have robots explore the rubble first. The military benefits can hardly be considered net benefits for humanity bestowed by governments! We don't sing hymns to the rivalry of governments which produces the wars and the chaos which also produces more efficient ways to conduct that rivalry. At best, clever robots in the context of war will mitigate some of the awfulness of war.
Ah, but there will be civilian benefits ... someday, maybe. If we don't look at such claims with some skepticism, after all, we might find ourselves encouraging warfare-based statism, in the expectation that it will create ever more wonderful stuff (for those who survive long enough to enjoy the stuff.)
A more promising candidate for Matt's point then is the internet. He asked me whether I was asserting that:
"1. The government and the Defense Department played no central role in the development of FTP.
"2. That FTP was not central to the founding of the Internet and its subsequent offspring the world wide web.
"3. That, on balance, the Internet and World Wide Web are simply of marginal utility?"
I begged off, saying I would address such points in an upcoming blog entry. Which is where we are. So ....
For the uninitiated, FTP is "file transfer protocol," a critical internet building block that dates back to the early 1970s, and allows the quick transfer of text from one computer to another. And yes, of course, I acknowledge the historical truth in Matt's points (1) and (2). In 1958, as a response to the Soviet advances embodied in their Sputnik satellite, the US established an advanced research projects agency (ARPA) -- later renamed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The name change made explicit what had been clear enough anyway -- the new interest in supporting "advanced" projects was an interest in those with military significance, in the face of the threat from Soviet communism. FTP, and in the early 1980s for that matter the development of graphical user interfaces (GUI) too, were offspring of ARPA/DARPA.
Now ... isn't that good? Hasn't the internet brought us a lot of useful stuff, such as my ability to explain these thoughts to whoever you are, reading this right now?
Well ... yes. But as to question (3) above, I still have to say, "maybe not." Indeed, "probably not."
The phrase "marginal utility" is an inapt one in this context. That's a technical phrase in economics, with a meaning different from what Matt seems to have in mind. What I think he has in mind is a full cost/benefit analysis. The problem with this is that it requires alternative-path scenarios. The question is not "is a world with long-distance speed-of-light non-hierarchical communication better than one without" but something more like "is a world with long-distance speed-of-light non-hierarchical communication of the sort the world now has because of ARPA/DARPA better than whatever would exist had it not come about in that way?"!
In considering that question, one would have to consider other ways in which long-distance, speed-of-light non-hirearchical communication could have come about. Do we know it could never have happened had there been no such post-Sputnik reaction?
The problem is the old one of weighing what we don't see against what we do see. What seems obvious is that if ARPA had never existed, the money that it spent would have been spent or invested in some other way. How do we decide among different possible pathways unless we have some sense of what else might have been done with it, whether in the telecomm field or elsewhere?
As an ambitious extreme for this sort of analysis, I'm reminded of a science fiction story I read once in which mercenary time travelers had somehow changed the outcome of the Punic Wars. The protagonist had to decide whether to time travel himself and undo the mischief the first set of time travelers had done, allowing Rome to win and the 'natural' course of history to proceed from there. In this novel, there is no 'better' or 'worse.' The 21st century AD that resulted from Hannibal’s victory was neither better nor worse than the one that resulted from Scipio's victory in the natural time line. Just very different.
Now think of something much simpler. Think of a bridge, built several years ago over the river Hypothetical with public funds. There was no big market-based demand for this bridge, because both the two towns separated by the mighty river Hypothetical were small. But … due in large part to that bridge, the towns have grown large, and merged into one. Instead of East Burg and West Burg there is now the unified town of Burg.
We Burgers no longer think of the bridge as a matter for continuing expenditures. After all, the maintenance costs of this bridge are a very small part of the overall highway budget of the state of which Burg is a part, and as to whatever bonds were sold to build the bridge, they’ve likewise melded into the broad background of public finance.
You can imagine an admirer of big government waxing poetically about the wonders of the bridge over Hypothetical. Where would the Burgers be without it? They cross that bridge all the time, a huge commerce depends on it, they would be in a terrible fix were it to disappear!
Yet that admirer would be misguided. (At least he’d have to be judged so without much better reasoning than that!) As Henry Hazlitt wrote long ago, thinking of precisely such cases, if you have taught yourself “to look for indirect as well as direct consequences [you can] once more see in the eye of imagination the possibilities that have never been allowed to come into existence.” What of that capital that was diverted to create this bridge and indirectly to create the Burg that depends on it? That capital would otherwise have created homes, cars, washing machines, dresses and coats, etc.
No doubt we will continue to use the bridge whatever our imagination or philosophy allows. But why suspect a priori that the world created by the diversion of that capital is better than the world strangled at that moment?
That other world – one in which the whole highway system around this river on both banks had been left to market forces let us say – would likely have had new bridges at some point, too, since bridges are valuable things for which there is a market demand. There would not have been (on our stipulation) this particular bridge built with these materials, at this particular time. Why do we know the cost/benefit ratio along that path would have been worse?
I suspect the burden of proof lies quite the other way, for bridges and for file transfer methods too, and it is a burden that cannot be satisfied.
The capital was diverted by force in one way or another. Either the bridge was built by taxed revenue or it was built with money borrowed, due to the low interest rates that can go to a sovereign because of its power to tax, and because of the further power to declare interest on its bonds tax free. Either way, it was a diversion by force.
Force is quite generally a way of doing that which free transactions among free people would not have done. How does that make it a good thing? How does that make force-built bridges magically superior to whatever the freely transacting parties would have done.