Chanting Points Memo: Why Yes – We Did Build It

“You didn’t build that”.

President Obama said it to America’s entrepreneurs during the campaign; the not-remotely-muted message was that “private sector innovation follows public sector investment” – that without roads, there’d be no car company; without airports, there’d be no aircraft. 

On the state level, one of Governor Messinger’s budget czars made essentially the same statement at a meeting of government and business leaders in Thief River Falls last year; without government to build the infrastructure, entrepreneurship would be doomed to failure. 

On the one level, it’s wrong – unless the entrepreneurs and their employees not only weren’t paying plenty of taxes, but hadn’t already paid their taxesforall that infrastructure all of their lives, and their parents, and grandparents, back to statehood. 

But even beyond that – and I can’t believe I and many other conservative pundits didn’t note this at the time?   It’s just not true; infrastructure tends to follow innovation.

A great example – which came first, the car or the road?

Henry Ford and dozens of other auto makers put a car in almost every garage decades before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956. The success of the car created a demand for roads. The government didn’t build highways, and then Ford decided to create the Model T. Instead, the highways came as a byproduct of the entrepreneurial genius of Ford and others.

Read a little about the history of the automobile.  When cars were expensive, handmade playthings of the wealthy, roads, were few, far between, and largely wretched outside the cities, where they existed at all.  The normal “road” in the greater US in 1900 was a cow path or a wagon trail.  Early cars were as likely to be found driving along railroad tracks as anywhere else. 

And what happened next?  A huge federal road-building initiative? 

No!  Ford mass-produced the Model T, which brought the car financially into reasonable reach for working-class Americans.  Other auto makers followed suit. 

And then the roads got built: 

Moreover, the makers of autos, tires and headlights began building roads privately long before any state or the federal government got involved. The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway for cars, pieced together from new and existing roads in 1913, was conceived and partly built by entrepreneurs—Henry Joy of Packard Motor Car Co., Frank Seiberling of Goodyear and Carl Fisher, a maker of headlights and founder of the Indy 500.

And this was the pattern for advance after advance in industry and “infrastructure”; the canal boat led to the government canal; the burgeoning steamship industry led to everything from seaports to the taming of the Mississippi; commerce, not Algore or even the Department of Defense, built the Internet. 

And the business in Thief River Falls which Governor Messinger’s budget apparatchik owed its existence to infrastructure?   Not only had they paid their fair share for the infrastructure that exists (more than their fair share, actually, given Minnesota’s business taxes) over the past 40 years, but it was the company’s existence that gave Thief River Falls the need for significant infrastructure in the first place. 

It’s time government – especially the arrogant, preening, narcissistic variety practiced by the DFL – learn its place.

Comments welcome at Shot In The Dark.