We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Perhaps the first blow to the technocratic mentality came with personal computers, pioneered not by bureaucratic think tanks, but by college kids and hobbyists. Then in 2000, the private firm Celera beat the government-run Human Genome Project in mapping the human genome, despite the government’s almost decade-long head start.

Today, the leaders in space technology are not at NASA but at private firms such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. True, these companies benefit from government subsidies — some of them shockingly wasteful — but nonetheless, they are demonstrating once again economic advantages of private industry over government management of technology. According to Ed Hudgins, an expert on space privatization, “as a government bureaucracy, NASA simply can’t be efficient. Every decision must be vetted and procedures followed that have more to do with protecting butts than protecting safety and keeping costs reasonable.” Private companies, by contrast, are not only faster at changing plans when necessary, but they have the incentive to do so, because they—unlike government entities—must bear the costs of their mistakes.

Timothy Sandefur

28 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Zerren Yeoville

    Not only do they bear the costs of their mistakes, but they can also afford to be open about them as ‘learning experiences’, rather than regarding them as an embarrassment to be covered up and classified top-secret. SpaceX’s ‘blooper tape’ with its sardonic captions has more than twelve million views on Youtube.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Today, the leaders in space technology are not at NASA

    Were they ever?

    Remember this quote (attributed to John Glenn):
    I guess the question I’m asked the most often is: “When you were sitting in that capsule listening to the count-down, how did you feel?” Well, the answer to that one is easy. I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

    NASA may have built stuff, but the “problems” were sorted out by private contractors before they got implemented.

    Remember this old canard:
    When NASA started sending astronauts into space, they quickly Discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero Gravity. To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a Decade and $12 billion developing a pen that writes in zero Gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass And at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 C. The Russians used a pencil.

    I don’t need to mention this story is untrue, but the important part of the truth was that the “space pen” was developed independently by Mr Fisher using his own money, and later pitched to NASA.

    The idea that NASA is a prime example of showing what government can achieve is largely false, many of the underlying technologies were developed privately and some without using the government as a catalyst. The “space race” was largely a demonstration of potential ICBM technology between America and Russia, and carries on today with China and India, so it was always perpetuated that this was a government project.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    This seems to be a tough lesson to learn.

    Neville Shute wrote an autobiographical book “Slide Rule” about his experiences in the UK aviation industry back in the days of airships, in the 1930s. UK Gov was looking for an airship to speed up transport to the then world-spanning British Empire, and sponsored the construction of two airships — R-100 and R-101. One was built by private industry, one by the UK Gov directly. The private industry version worked quite well, but was decommissioned after the government-built one blew up.

    80 years later, and we are still forgetting the lessons.

  • CaptDMO

    Combined, with a new “objective” of air traffic contrl and forecasting the weather.
    After the 80% layoffs, “American” labor shortages of “highly educated” Legislators
    shouldn’t be an issue.

  • The private industry version worked quite well, but was decommissioned after the government-built one blew up. (Gavin Longmuir, July 27, 2019 at 5:06 pm)

    (As you may well know) the whole point of the exercise was that the Labour government’s Minister for Air wanted to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over greedy private industry – hence the 1929-initiated contest between the government-run and private-run projects. It was an experiment arranged to show how well state socialism worked. The Air Minister insisted on a prestige trip to France for a scheduled date – during which it crashed and burned, killing him and many of his civil servants.

    His Labour-appointed successor had two choices: either announce that socialism had failed its test or decide that all airships were inherently dangerous and must be discontinued.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    As far as I can recall from reading “Slide Rule” several years ago, one of the big issues which made the private enterprise airship more successful was that the design was modified during construction, as they found out new information through the act of building it. Engine design was changed, etc. The airship built by UKGov stuck to the original design, with no modifications allowed.

    This may be one of the characteristics of risk-averse bureaucrats, who want to cover their rear ends by following the As-Specified design precisely, versus the private enterprise builder who was trying to meet or exceed the performance targets. Do you cook the meat for 30 minutes like the recipe says, or do you cook it until it tastes good?

  • Jacob

    Hydrogen filled baloons are volatile. The first that flew exploded. Had the private-built one flown first it would have exploded too.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    “Had the private-built one flown first it would have exploded too.”

    History records that the privately-built R-100 was the first to be completed, beating the UKGov effort. It flew first, making a number of more-or-less successful flights, including a trans-Atlantic crossing to Canada and back.

    When the later-completed government-built R-101 blew up on its first international flight, the R-100 was scrapped.

  • Stephen Houghton

    Jacob, know what you are talking about the Private ship did fly first. It flew to Canada and back.

  • neonsnake

    80 years later, and we are still forgetting the lessons.

    Could not agree more. I don’t know how many times we need to explain why central planning does not – can not – work. The arrogance of thinking that one person can know as much as many specialised people! This speaks to your “interconnected world” examples, Gavin.

  • the Private ship did fly first. (Stephen Houghton, July 28, 2019 at 4:53 pm)

    Indeed, I think that was part of why the Minister for Air insisted on the socialist one flying him to Paris in time for some conference or meeting. The experiment, that had been planned (how very appropriately) to demonstrate socialism’s superiority was already threatening (again, most appropriately) not to have the planned outcome.

    How innocent socialists were in those days, at least some of them and at least in the UK. Today, even socialists who claim the most fanatical belief know not to hold experiments of this kind. Back then, you could find socialists who would run such an experiment, actually expecting it to show the superiority of government-run over private-run.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Niall K: “Back then, you could find socialists who would run such an experiment, actually expecting it to show the superiority of government-run over private-run.”

    Today, they don’t call themselves socialists, and they simply ignore what happens when “their guys” get control. Just think about the Cone of Silence which has descended over Venezuela, and about how no-one talks about the number of desperate Cuban families who depend on their wives & teenage daughters servicing Canadian sex tourists.

    But to be fair, there are a lot of parallels between big privately-owned businesses and government bureaucracies; both can be remarkably inefficient and ultimately self-destructive. The authoritarian tendency is buried deep in the human psyche — as is the related human tendency for unquestioning obedience to authority.

  • Jacob

    If the R100 did not explode on it’s first voyage it would have exploded later. That is what hydrogen filled balloons do. That is why hydrogen fueled cars will never be viable – because a hydrogen fuel system is too volatile.
    The government balloon exploded not because it was built by socialists but because it was filled with hydrogen.

    The Boeing 737 Max debacle shows that private companies are also capable of committing terrible errors.

    It’s not that I am a fan of government run projects. Its just that blaming a hydrogen balloon explosion on socialism rather than on the hydrogen is ridiculous.

  • Charlie Suet

    I think the one advantage government initiatives have is that people are more relaxed about them killing the subjects of their experiments. Unfortunately this could be a boon in inherently risky enterprises.

    The first corporation to lose a ship on the way to the moon will be hauled in front of some sort of committee packed with leftists. Editorials will be written insisting that they put profit ahead of people.

    Conversely, the state is “allowed” to off its citizens through carelessness.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Jacob: “Its just that blaming a hydrogen balloon explosion on socialism rather than on the hydrogen is ridiculous.”

    Blaming the hydrogen for human incompetence seems rather ridiculous too. It would be rather like blaming the Ukrainian Holodomor on the weather instead of on Stalin and his Communist henchmen.

    After all, almost everything is potentially dangerous. Knives are dangerous, but (with the regrettable exception of the streets of London) most people handle knives every day without any problem. Gasoline is volatile and dangerous, but car fires are few & far between, despite the hundreds of millions of vehicles on the roads world-wide. Dams are dangerous, but dam failures are rare — not as rare as nuclear power accidents, but still rare.

    You are correct that hydrogen would not be anyone’s first choice for the lighter-than-air gas for an airship. But the UK probably did not have access to commercial-scale helium supplies in the 1920s; which meant that the design had to be smarter to mitigate the risks.

  • Julie near Chicago

    “…[B]laming a hydrogen balloon explosion on socialism rather than on the hydrogen is ridiculous.”

    By analogy, blaming a death-by-gunshot on the person holding the gun rather than on the gun is ridiculous.

    Yet we keep saying, Don’t blame the gun. The gun is just a tool. The cause of the death is the shooter.

    (Regardless of whether the deadly shot was accidental or purposeful, and of whether the shooter was the shootee or some other dude.)

    But for the gun, the death wouldn’t have happened. But for the shooter, the death wouldn’t have happened. But for the presence of the shootee at the instant of the shot, the death wouldn’t have happened. It took the instrument, the agent, and the presence of the victim to create the death.

    But for the inadequacy of the design (or improper operation of the craft), the hydrogen balloon wouldn’t have have exploded.

    “But-for” reasoning is tricky.

    How can we know the dancer from the dance?


    Still, a (well-designed and well-kept) gun in the hands of most (practiced) gun-owners is highly unlikely to damage anyone (or anything, save a non-human target — a paper target, a clay pigeon, a real deer or rat).

    However, the mindset of the minds okaying the design of the balloon is a factor in the making of it. If it is true that socialists, generally speaking, don’t place much value on the lives of humans because they are expendable for the Greater Good (whatever that may be), that would be a factor encouraging a certain lackadaisical attitude toward design.

    So would a mindset more interested in paperwork than products. So would a mindset that’s more interested in being “clever” or in bringing a product to market quickly than in physically as well as theoretically triple-checking everything.

    Unfortunately, these mindsets are not restricted to socialists only.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I hope this business of picking out certain photos as a verification of non-bot activity isn’t going to be the order of the day. :>(((

  • Jacob

    Well, hydrogen is **VERY** volatile. Much more than a dam or gasoline, or a gun.
    That’s the difference, that’s why the analogies aren’t correct.

    And a balloon is huge, filled with a huge quantity of hydrogen, tons of it. There is no way of preventing any leak, and consequently a blowup. It can be argued that the government was wrong in choosing this hydrogen configuration. I don’t know if the private company designed it’s own balloon and decided to opt for hydrogen, or they built to government specifications that demanded hydrogen.
    The decision to use hydrogen was fatally wrong, whoever made it.

  • Jacob

    By the way: If I’m not mistaken – the tank was developed by the British Army – a government body.
    As I said, balloons – airships – failed because they were a bad idea not because of government involvement.
    The libertarian ideology can defend itself without stretching reality.

  • Jacob, everyone knew that hydrogen had explosive properties, and therefore precautions were needed in airship design. IIRC, Nevil Shute Norway describes an occasion when a very worried engineer from the government project showed him the doping ordered by the bureaucrats to speed its completion – doping that harmed the margin of safety. That no-one on the government team dared argue (on grounds of safety-completion state or unfavourable weather) with the Air Minister’s decision that it would fly him to Paris for his very important meeting (with the press photographers) was just the last of many political decisions that ensured that, while the hydrogen in both ships might be equally able to burn, the likelihood of its demonstrating this property was much higher in the government-run one.

    There is no need to stretch reality to assess the outcome of the experiment deliberately chosen by Britain’s first socialist government; just read Nevil’s book (or other accounts – Nevil is interesting for giving a competent engineer’s detailed take on specific ways that direct government control and its attendant politics harmed the government-run project’s build quality). And there is no need to stretch reality to explain why, afterwards, “Hydrogen burns – we shouldn’t build airships (cancel the rival project at once)” became the preferred alternative to “State socialism: we did an experiment and we got a result”.

    BTW the tank was developed by the British navy, not the British army. Churchill was in charge of the navy at the point when he – never one to be overly confined by the duties of whatever office he held – decided it would be a good idea.

    He later lost control of it, leading the minister of production later still to report to the government, “I consider that roughly a year has been lost in tank design” (to be fair, one, though far from all, of the causes of that was the Admiralty clinging like glue to supplies of armour plating).

  • Jacob

    I can only repeat: whatever troubles the socialist government added to the dirigible experiment – it was not the main reason for it’s demise.

    Had dirigible balloons been a viable idea, they would have developed despite the accidents of the government run projects.

    This is a bad example for government incompetence. Other, better examples are available.

    Try this “the world’s cheapest hospital” (private sector competence).

  • Jacob

    Here’s an example of an apparently successful program run by a government company – mainly. The Arrow anti-missile missile.

    Government projects are usually inefficient in the sense of more expensive than they need to be, but not necessarily a technical failure.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Jacob — I don’t think anyone is asserting that government programs will necessarily be technical failures. Certainly, there are good examples of successful government-run programs — US/UK development of radar during WWII; US development of nuclear weapons in WWII; early-stage NASA’s successful moon landings. And there are sad examples of commercial companies self-destructing — Where are you now, Austin Motors? However, there seem to be very few examples of head-to-head competition between commercial and government programs, like the R-100 & R-101 airships. Perhaps Niall K. is correct that socialists have learned to avoid those kinds of losing competitions.

    Part of the issue may simply be the growth & decay cycle which seems to afflict all human organizations, government and commercial. Compare early NASA successfully putting a Man on the Moon with later NASA focusing on putting a dyke in space. The advantage of the commercial world is that it takes the dogs out and shoots them, whereas government programs are seldom put out of their misery.

    Lost opportunities — look at McDonnell Douglas’s development of the launch-and-return Delta Clipper-X program in the early 1990s, which effectively did then what Elon Musk’s team is doing now. NASA took over the program and cancelled it; instead, NASA continued to pour their efforts (and taxpayers’ money) into the pointless International Space Station and the hopelessly expensive ‘reusable’ Space Shuttle. With different decisions, NASA could have beaten Musk by 20 years.

    One of the interesting sidelights on the Space Shuttle is that the Russians could not understand what NASA was up to. Their calculations showed that the Shuttle would be more expensive than existing single-use throw-away rockets. What had those devious Americans learned that the Russians were missing? Consequently, Russia built its own Shuttle (Buran) to confirm their calculations — flew it once, demonstrating that indeed the Shuttle was a less-economic way of getting into space, and shut the program down. Late-stage NASA carried on regardless with the losing Shuttle system. And that is the bad part about government-run programs.

  • Jacob

    Many government run programs are indeed failures (and some are not).
    Anyhow – the failure of the dirigible balloon idea was not caused by government failure and would not have succeeded had it been left in private hands.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Jacob: “… the failure of the dirigible balloon idea was not caused by government failure and would not have succeeded had it been left in private hands.”

    Surely the point is rather that, if decisions had been left in private hands, no-one would have built airships in the 1920s. Only the empire-building Political Class was interested in faster physical movement for the movers & shakers (themselves) at that point in time. There was no significant private demand for that service at that time. That is why UK Gov paid for both airships.

    Read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “From Scotland to Silverado”, written in the late 19th Century. Only two weeks to get from Greenock to California! What a wonderful world — it does not need to get any better than this!

  • Surely the point is rather that, if decisions had been left in private hands, no-one would have built airships in the 1920s (Gavin Longmuir, August 1, 2019 at 6:41 pm)

    The point is debated as one of the minor what-if’s of the twentieth century, with your view being the conventional wisdom but an alternative view having its proponents: that the R101 and Hindenberg disasters and associated politics (R101 and socialism we have discussed; the Hindenberg was inevitably associated with national socialism) discredited a viable means of transport. Airships were dangerous. So were aeroplanes. By the chance of some of my extended acquaintance, I have heard the arguments of both sides.

    (I have no dog in this fight. My sole point is that, in 1930, the government’s experiment had a clear pro-tem result which could only have been qualified by allowing R100 to continue operating and seeing what happened. Instead, they grounded it, officially lest it blow up too, but actually because the experiment could no longer have the intended result even if it eventually did, and still less so if it didn’t.)

    Airships would have been of no use in most of WWII, but I have sometimes wondered whether they could have had value in closing the air surveillance gap during the battle of the Atlantic in 1942. By the end of that war, aeroplane technology had been forcefully accelerated, eliminating the interwar niche for airships at least to the point where no-one wished to face the bad PR.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Like Niall, I have no dog in this fight — except for the desire to learn from others. Certainly, the absence of other head-to-head competitions between government-run and commercially-run projects does tend to support Niall’s hypothesis that the Socialists were once bitten, twice shy.

    On the technology of airships, there are very few lighter-than-air gases huddled at the bottom end of the Periodic Table. (Hot air is ok for fun ballooning, but it is obviously not a viable technology for long-distance commercial air travel). In the 1920s, hydrogen was the only practical choice. Helium — the non-reactive better safer choice — did not become available on a commercial scale until three decades later in the late-1950s, when development of the Hugoton gas field in the US provided a substantial source of helium as a by-product. By that stage, the rapidly growing capabilities of heavier-than-air craft had rendered lighter-than-air craft into a solution in search of an application.

    To return to the original topic of space flight, the timeline is interesting. Germans demonstrated the viability of rockets in the 1940s by making holes in London. Russia and the US demonstrated the viability of human space travel in the 1960s. McDonnell-Douglas demonstrated the technical viability of reusable launch-and-return rockets in the early 1990s. But the commercial development of launch-and-return technology did not occur until very recently. It is tempting to argue that the dramatic slowdown in technological development in the 1970s was due to the anti-science bias of the Usual Suspects — they cancelled the super-conducting super-collider in Texas at around the same time, and have subsequently focused attention only on Junk Science. But it may simply be that commercial interest in lower-cost access to orbit had to wait for the growth of other technologies like GPS, remote sensing, and internet which could provide a market for rocket launches.

  • Julie near Chicago


    That is an amazing article. I hope Bloomberg has its facts straight. Thanks for the link!