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Faster Is Not Always Better

July 12, 2003

I guess we always knew it: speed has never been the strong suite of government, unless it's something like enacting a Freon ban on the basis of junk science. The announcement of the permanent withdrawal of the British-French supersonic airliner from service joins a long list of similar, failed public enterprises, although at 34 years, this particular boondoggle has lasted longer than most of its predecessors.

The Third Reich's majestic dirigibles cruised the world for less than a decade before the Hindenburg went down in flames. The heavily subsidized SS United States went into mothballs less than 15 years after it seized the coveted Blue Riband for crossing the Atlantic in record time in 1952. The fastest thing about Amtrak's much-vaunted Acela "high-speed" train was the speed with which it demonstrated its unserviceability.

Now it's Britain and France's turn to repeat this expensive, wasteful bit of history, at the expense of its citizenry, as usual.

These government excursions into the realm of speed have something peculiar in common: in no case did the adventure yield to a successor that was faster—not from government nor from private industry. The SS United States might be considered to have yielded to faster air transportation, but not to any faster thing of its kind—a ship. No compact disk ran the Concorde phonograph record out of favor; no Gigahertz microchip knocked this MegaHertz chip off its throne—that kind of stuff only occurs where real entrepreneurs use the funds of willing, risk-bearing investors to seek a profit.

This Concorde was not just the proud enterprise of government, but even the product of a consortium of governments! Accounting being the imponderable, not to say fraud-ridden, sort of activity it is, we will of course never know just how much this grand project took both from the taxpayers supporting it and from the private aircraft manufacturers and airlines competing against it.

But for all the monopolies government enjoys, one monopoly it doesn't enjoy is that of malinvestment. From Ford's Edsel to Enron's Broadband, private industry has presented an ongoing spectacle of investors' funds being wasted in costly, unsuccessful enterprises. Mercifully, the waste in these cases is only of the investments of volunteers seeking a profit by assuming risk, not that of taxpayers forced to pay amounts bearing not even a trace of a relationship to the benefits that might accrue to said payers.

And what about those private malinvestments? They've been demonstrated time and again in this space to be far larger and more-common as a consequence of manipulations of the "money" supply by . . . government than they would be with a private, commodity-based money supply. Is there an echo in here?

Charitably, perhaps we should conclude that commercial supersonic air travel is something that we (the world economy) just cannot afford, or, at least, does not desire to afford. It is the market which determines whether and to what extent certain services such as speed are desired by society relative to competing demands on resources.

From the point of view of economics, no one can say a priori that faster is always and everywhere better. It may need to take a back seat to other priorities, like cheap tickets or mass availability or frequency of travel opportunities. No bureaucracy can make these resource-allocation decisions autonomously. The answer to the question "what is economical" can only be answered within the framework of the market process itself.

Well oddly, since the time the Concorde was introduced in 1969, the main thing we seem to have been able to afford more of—a great deal more of—is government. In Europe, home of the Concorde, the percentage of Gross Domestic Product taken by government rose from 32 percent to 40 percent[1], and unlike the Concorde, it continues to rise. How much richer indeed, 34 years on, might we have been if we had only been left as unfree as we then were to produce and exchange value among ourselves without the wasteful, demoralizing albatross of the tax collector hanging ever more-heavily around our necks?

And there, finally, is the ultimate irony: in all likelihood, the reason the world economy demonstrably can't afford supersonic air service is . . . the Concorde itself, and all the thousands and thousands of similar, wasteful boondoggles that have come but not necessarily gone, both before and after the Concorde.

But lovers of technology and high-speed air transport take heart! This art is not dead, but still practiced all over the world today, even as you read, by the one entity that can still "afford" such a thing. Hint: they don't sell tickets.


Joe Potts studies economics at his home in South Florida. pottsf@msn.com

[1] OECD Europe members 1975–2000.


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