Why is America the world’s richest nation? Is it mostly because of the government, or is it thanks to entrepreneurs and businessmen? Historian Burt Folsom of Hillsdale College explains.
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The United States is the world’s most prosperous economy. It’s been that way for so long — over a hundred years — that we take it for granted.
But how did it happen?
There are many answers, of course. One is that the United States values the free market over government control of the economy.
But here’s a point that is seldom made:
It didn’t begin that way
Before the country placed its trust in the free market, it trusted the government to make important business decisions. Or to put it another way, only after the government failed repeatedly to promote economic growth and only after private enterprise succeeded where the government failed did the United States start to develop a world beating economy.
Let’s look at three telling examples:
In 1808 John Jacob Astor formed the American Fur Company and marketed American furs around the world. Europeans adored beaver hats for their peerless warmth and durability. Astor gave them what they wanted.
Instead of leaving the fur business to capable entrepreneurs like Astor, the government decided it wanted to be in on the action.
So, it subsidized its own fur company run by a self-promoting government official named Thomas McKenney. McKenney should have won the competition. After all, he had the federal government backing him.
But while Astor employed hundreds of people and still made a tidy profit, McKenney’s company lost money every year. Finally, Congress in 1822, came to its senses and ended the subsidies for McKenney and his associates.
A similar situation developed in the 1840’s around the telegraph.
The telegraph was the first step toward the instant communication we have today. Invented by Samuel Morse, the telegraph transmitted sound – as dots and dashes representing letters of the alphabet.
Morse built his first telegraph wire between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore with the help of a government grant. Morse, more of an idealist than businessman, agreed to let the government own and operate the telegraph “in the national interest.”
But the government steadily lost money each month it operated the telegraph. During 1845, expenditures for the telegraph exceeded revenue by six-to-one and sometimes by ten-to-one. Seeing no value in the invention, Congress turned the money-loser over to private enterprise.
In the hands of entrepreneurs, the business took off. Telegraph promoters showed the press how it could instantly report stories occurring hundreds of miles away. Bankers, stock brokers and insurance companies saw how they could instantly monitor investments near and far. And dozens of other valuable uses were soon discovered.
As the quality of service improved, telegraph lines were strung across the country – from 40 miles of wire in 1846 to 23,000 miles in 1852. By the 1860s, the U.S. had a transcontinental telegraph wire. And by the end of that decade entrepreneurs had strung a telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean.
Why didn’t the US government profitably use what Morse had invented? Part of the answer is that the incentives for bureaucrats differ sharply from those of entrepreneurs. When government operated the telegraph, Washington bureaucrats received no profits from the messages they sent, and the cash they lost was the taxpayers’, not their own. So government officials had no incentive to improve service, to find new customers, or to expand to more cities.
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