I fully support the entrepreneurial spirit of this nation. However I note that many individuals who tout the values of “free markets” often forget that their success may not be entirely attributed to their ego-driven self-made assertions. The fact is much of the business success by smart, motivated, innovative people, was achieved by standing on the shoulders of others who laid the groundwork before them – this includes significant benefactions made possible through government investment.
It is a fact that many successful commercial enterprises would not exist today without the initial investment of government projects. Some undertakings were simply too large, excessively complex or otherwise beyond the scope, abilities or resources of the private sector. Government instigated projects have been essential in fostering many private commercial industries existing today. Let me offer a few examples:
The Railroad System
In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act (1) authorizing congress to issue to the privately held Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, 6,400 acres of FREE land (later doubled to 12,800) and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track built. The railroads then sold portions of their land to arriving settlers at huge profits.
Today Congress still authorizes funds to support Amtrak passenger service, funding the upgrade of track and infrastructure to private railroad companies which also benefits the railroad’s primary source of income: freight revenues.
Interstate Highway System
The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways otherwise known as the Interstate Highway system, was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The cost of construction has been estimated at $425 billion (in 2006 dollars), making it the largest public works project in history.(2) Interstate commerce, in the form of commercial trucking, depends almost entirely on the highway system.
Dams and Irrigation
The Federal Power Commission in 1920 enabled construction of federal dams on the Colorado and Columbia rivers, leading directly to public/private competition for production and sale of power.(3) The Columbia Basin Project of irrigation canals and aqueducts which directly supports commercial agriculture is estimated to have cost $1,687,000,000 alone.
Far too risky for most private companies to venture, the US Space program has resulted in monumental economic, scientific and technological returns, far exceeding the initial investment. The space program represents significant revenue for American corporations such as Honeywell, Northrup, Locheed, Douglass and a long list of other technical and engineering companies. It is estimated that for every dollar spent on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit.(5)
The Internet we know today (not invented by Al Gore) started out as The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). The network was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense for use by its projects at universities and research laboratories in the US.(4) Today thousands of private companies, large and small, depend on the Internet for their existence.
Privately operated nuclear utility power plants would not have been able to develop the nuclear fuel in use today were it not for the Manhattan Project.
The list continues: the Panama Canal, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as government agencies which directly support commerce such as the National Weather Service, the U. S. Postal Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.
So when we ask, what has the government ever done for us? Well, there's the aqueduct...
1. Wikipedia: Pacific Railroad Act
2. Wikipedia: Interstate Highway System
3. University of Washington Library: "Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream" (book excerpt)
4. Wikipedia: ARAPANET
5. Freakonomics.com: "Is space exploration worth the cost?"