Well, yes Willy

Living standards have risen 40 times over the last 250 years in the west, driven neither by the small state beloved of conservatives nor the large state favoured by socialists.
Rather, the growth has resulted from a complicated interaction between capitalism and science and technology, of necessity publicly funded,

Public funding before WWII was pretty scarce on the ground, wasn’t it?

14 thoughts on “Well, yes Willy”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    I would never agree with Willy, as he is just a slightly more posh and polished Ritchie, but

    In 1823, the British government gave Babbage £1700 to start work on the project. Although Babbage’s design was technically feasible, no one had built a mechanical device to such exacting standards before, so the engine proved to be much more expensive than anticipated. By the time the government killed the project in 1842, they had given Babbage over £17,000, without receiving a working engine.

    There was money floating around. People weren’t ideologues. On either side. Ideological purity was not that important at the time.

  2. SMFS: The above hardly proves there was a vast amount of state subsidy. It more resembles a medieval/renaissance “search for a patron” than some sort of grant system.

  3. Economic growth is indeed a function of innovation. Some of that is organisational (insert dreary Smithian division of labour speech here) but mostly it is technological. A new plough, a steam engine, etc.

    The sly bit here is Willy just sticking in the “of necessity publicly funded” part. This suggests that people would not, and have not, innovate unless given government money. This is cobblers.

    The most important modern technology (perhaps)- microcomputers- was a bunch of crazy people building a product that wise owls saw no market for. What do ordinary people need computers for? They don’t run a payroll or compute gunnery tables. Sheer madness.

    The virtue of free markets is that they allow people to do crazy things, which sometimes work out rather well. This is what Willy does not understand.

  4. Yes, there was some government funding; the Board of Longitude was set up by Act of Parliament in 1714 with a prize of up to £20,000 for finding a way of measuring longitude (they paid out some smaller prizes, but not the full amount).

    Wasn’t there also a reward for the safety lamp, and a row between Davy and Stephenson over it?

    Although the early ones paid by results, rather than just shoveling huge amounts of money at researchers.

    But yes, Ian B is correct; government funding is neither necessary nor always the best way.

  5. The closest historical thing to public funding of research was probably the Church of England; educated parsons with a living and not very much to do, some of them made valuable scientific discoveries.

  6. So Much For Subtlety

    Mr Ecks – “The above hardly proves there was a vast amount of state subsidy. It more resembles a medieval/renaissance “search for a patron” than some sort of grant system.”

    Sure. I am not trying to claim a vast amount. The State did, however, subsidise some things. Not a lot but a bit.

    We would be better off with that mediaeval system.

  7. @ SMFS
    Tim’s line was “Public funding before WWII was pretty scarce on the ground, wasn’t it?”
    He did *not* say “non-existent”

  8. So Much For Subtlety

    john77 – “Tim’s line was “Public funding before WWII was pretty scarce on the ground, wasn’t it?” He did *not* say “non-existent””

    Well we could split hairs about exactly what was meant. Or we could point out that the real problem is with the words “of necessity”. Most government spending is wasted and wasteful. That is just as true for investment in new technologies as for British Coal. Willy is wrong about that.

    But it did happen. Wastefully.

  9. Btw, exactly who or what funded sewerage, water and street lighting in late Victorian England? Not a period that I know much about.

  10. So Much For Subtlety

    Theophrastus – “Btw, exactly who or what funded sewerage, water and street lighting in late Victorian England? Not a period that I know much about.”

    London’s sewage was the work of the Metropolitan Board of Works. A government-appointed qango that was notoriously corrupt. When they were abolished they all voted themselves massive pension rises.

    But they did build some nice sewers

  11. It’s worth observing a distinction in government spending, between things it buys for itself and things it buys for other people. Historically, spending on the military (where government is the consumer) was normally relatively efficient, because they actually cared whether they won wars or not. The more stuff it buys for the rest of us, the less efficient it gets, as it neither knows nor cares so much what the outcome is.

  12. As a matter of historical fact ,it was the local authorities who funded sewerage,(not sewage as SMFS laughably states), water and street lighting, a programme largely initiated by Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham where laissez faire had brought things to a standstill and the private water system had to be brought under municipal control because it was poisoning people. Laissez faire began to wither at this point, to be finished off when Chamberlain debunked the myth of international free trade. However people who know no history or economics and just play with their computers all day and hence know everything have decided to revive globalised Free Trade in a kind of Gothic Revival ( because it spreads darkness and depression, both economic and psychological) .

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