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Remember the lesson of steamship subsidies

• Las Vegas Review Journal/Vin Surpynowicz

Imagine some great reformer back in 1650 had decided we needed to replace sailing craft, because it took so many men to run a sailing ship that they had to live crammed together in wall-to-wall hammocks, with little hygiene and even less privacy, under a discipline little better than slavery.

Imagine a powerful government at the time -- in London, presumably -- had mandated that progressively 3 percent, and then 5 percent, and then 8 and then 12 percent of all goods had to be shipped in craft using "alternative, non-sail technology."

Hundreds of thousands of pounds in subsidies (billions of dollars, in today's reckoning) would then have flowed to people attempting to make commercially viable ships powered by enormous rubber bands, or towed by harnessed whales and porpoises, or any other fantastic thing they could persuade these landlocked, technological know-nothings to finance.

Eventually, in the first years of the 19th century, Robert Fulton developed the first commercially successful steamship -- not because government dictated it should happen (though Fulton did later seek state monopolies), but because of clever men trying to invent things that could make them money by solving existing problems, far away from the sea.

By the early 19th century, our central government in Washington had indeed grown rich and arrogant enough to believe it could help advance steamship transportation by subsidizing the efforts of one Edward Collins.

"Collins, a political entrepreneur ... said that America needed subsidized steamships to compete with England, to create jobs, and to provide a military fleet in case of war," historian Burton Folsom of Hillsdale College recounts at "If the government would give him $3 million down and $385,000 a year, he would build five ships, deliver mail and passengers, and outrace the (British) Cunarders" from New York to England.

Congress gave Collins the money in 1847, "but he built four enormous ships (not five smaller ships as he had promised)," Folsom reports.


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