The Geniuses Who Lord Over Us

by Don Boudreaux on October 30, 2010

in Complexity & Emergence, History, Myths and Fallacies, Politics

Here’s a letter to the New York Daily News:

Celeste Katz reports that Vice-President Joe Biden recently remarked that “Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive.  In the middle of the Civil War you had a guy named Lincoln paying people $16,000 for every 40 miles of track they laid across the continental United States….  No private enterprise would have done that for another 35 years” (“The Daily Politics,” Oct. 26).

Let’s overlook such fruits of private creativity and enterprise as the light bulb, refrigeration, the assembly line, container shipping, and the polio vaccine and focus instead on Mr. Biden’s example of America’s first transcontinental railroads.  The Great Northern – conceived in 1886 and owned and run by the immigrant James J. Hill – received no government assistance (not even free grants of rights-of-way).  Moreover, unlike the other three transcontinental lines that were completed in the 19th century – and each of which was indeed government subsidized – the Great Northern never went bankrupt.  It’s with us still today as the BNSF Railway.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

And Bob Higgs tells me, by e-mail, the following:

He’s [Biden's] got the subsidy amount wrong, too. For the UP [Union Pacific] and CP [Central Pacific], it was $16,000 or $32,000 or $48,000 per mile, depending on the grade (paid in U.S. bonds, of course).

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