In his classic bestseller Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman proclaimed that "The greatest advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science and literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government." Instead, we owe it all to private enterprise.
For right-wing ideologues and the Palin, Beck and Limbaugh congregations, Friedman's claim has always had a lot of truthiness. It sounds so good that it must be true, and was made by a world-famous economist and Nobel laureate.
However, the claim is not only false, but strikingly ignorant coming from a professor at one of our most famous universities. Had Dr. Friedman ever heard of the Acropolis, or the road and aqueduct systems, magnificent public buildings and other engineering marvels created by the imperial government of Rome? Did he notice the Apollo moon landing in 1969?
Friedman (1912-2006) lived to see the economic and cultural revolution brought about by the Internet. Its development was funded and overseen for three decades by the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Department. The NSF finally turned it over to commercial providers in 1995, launching the dotcom boom.
The idea for the Internet originated with Robert W. Taylor, an ARPA researcher in 1966. Taylor tried unsuccessfully to get private industry interested in his project. Fortunately for us all, he got federal funding.
America's strong economic growth over the past 65 years depended on its leadership in basic scientific and engineering research. This research spawned technological innovations that made firms more competitive and even gave rise to entirely new industries. As Ed Lazowska, one of America's leading computer scientists, explained to the House Subcommittee on Technology and Information Policy in July of 2004: "The innovation that creates the technologies that drive the new economy today is the fruit of investments the federal government made in basic research 10, 15, 30 years ago."
Besides the Internet, the list includes web browsers, public key cryptography for secure credit card transactions, parallel database systems, high performance computer graphics, and portable devices such as cell phones.
Why is major government support for basic research necessary? Why can't private enterprise play this role, as conservative ideologues would have it?