The Wall Street Journal ran an article earlier this week about who invented the internet. The author says it is an urban legend that the government launched it. The article describes a brief history of some of the individuals and companies (like Xerox) that helped bring about what we have today.
I have always thought it was a ridiculous claim by statists to point out the internet as an example of something in which the government created or helped innovate. The internet itself would be nothing if not for all of the contributing individuals and companies in the free marketplace. How could anyone seriously ever compare the government to Google, Apple, Amazon, Ebay, or Yahoo when it comes to innovation?
The other thing that has always annoyed me about this claim that the government invented the internet is that it completely ignores what Bastiat taught. A good economist should not just look at the things we can see, but consider all of the unseen things that never came about. Government at all levels in the U.S. takes almost half of our income. With that much money, it is actually surprising that the government can’t innovate more and invent more, especially with help from private companies.
If I had a trillion dollars per year at my disposal, I would think that I could hire enough people that I could at least cure a few diseases each year and invent some great new gadgets. You could do a lot with even just 1% of that. With 10 billion dollars per year, you could probably come up with some great things.
If the government hadn’t been taking all of this wealth out of society and misallocating it for the last several decades, it is hard to imagine what luxuries we would enjoy now. Twenty, or even ten, years ago, nobody could have imagined an iPad because there was no such thing at that time.
The other interesting thing to note about this article is a fact that is missed on most people. It was hard for the author of the article to pinpoint who exactly invented the internet. It is hard to get it down to one company and even harder to get it down to one name. That is because most things are not really invented by one person.
Most of the great things we have in our lives today were not invented by one person or even one company. People are constantly building off of the works of others. Chip speed and storage are getting better exponentially. Yet, how many people could explain why? How many techies do you know who could actually give you a coherent explanation as to why this is occurring? A few might be able to tell you something, but they will probably just be blowing smoke.
There is nobody who knows how to make a car from scratch. There is nobody who knows how to make a computer from scratch. As Leonard Read told us in I Pencil, nobody even knows how to make a pencil.
This is the way civilization works. We are constantly building off of the ideas and works of others. This is how society can progress at such a rapid rate. Most people specialize in one small thing. They cannot tell you how all of the other parts work in the process. They don’t need to. It somehow all comes together.
In truth, nobody invented the internet. It was millions of people who contributed. Some people were more important than others, but it still would have happened if any one person had not existed. It is rare that you have someone like Steve Jobs who makes such big contributions. But even if Jobs had never existed, we would still have many great gadgets today. It is hard to say if we would have iPads, but I’m guessing we would have other things similar.
Just imagine if the government ever got out of the way and all of the bright minds in this world were allowed to flourish. Technology could grow even faster than it is today. We can only imagine what might exist in another ten years.