|Construction crane at Norris Dam (TVA) (Currents of Change)|
None of the major technological transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries were the product of the private sector acting alone and responding only to the market. Railroads, radio, telegraph, telephone, electricity and the internet were all the result of public-private partnerships. None was delivered by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. All involved significant interventions by the visible hand of government.
What does this mean for us? Right now, government is widely seen as inefficient and ineffective, and our needs are thought to be best addressed by the private sector, through entrepreneurship, venture capital and Silicon Valley-style “disruption.” But unless we acknowledge the need for a substantial government role, we are going to be stuck, because change driven solely by the marketplace is unlikely to suffice.
Some might object that our current challenge is vastly different from those met by past technological changes, because we’re not just talking about a thing, like a radio or cellphone, but about changing our entire energy system. But these earlier transformations involved systems, too. Just as energy technology isn’t one thing, neither were the railroads, radio, electricity or the internet. Those systems all involved many parts, including federal, state and local policies to support them (the land grants that made the railroads possible, for instance, or role of the Federal Trade Commission in licensing radio and television stations).