How Big Government Actually Helps Innovation

Op-ed: Federal standards have helped technology advance
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 11, 2011 1:50 PM CST
How Big Government Actually Helps Innovation
Compact fluorescent bulbs are displayed at an Ikea store in Philadelphia, Tuesday, June 15, 2010.   (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Last week, Michele Bachmann introduced a bill to repeal the energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs, because, as she said, the “government has no business telling an individual what kind of lightbulb to buy.” She’s not the only conservative politician who’s upset (see here and here). All the complainers are misguided, writes Roger A. Pielke Jr. in the New York Times, but they can be excused for their beliefs—because the truth is that, while the “technologies and the standards that guide their deployment have revolutionized American society,” they’ve also been so successful as to make the government’s role “invisible.”

What Bachmann and the others must remember is that government-mandated standards have played a “critical role … in scientific and industrial innovation.” Yes, inventors like Thomas Edison made incredible advancements, “but inventions alone weren’t enough to guarantee progress.” When Edison was inventing, the lack of consistent standards “threatened to overwhelm industry and consumers with a confusing array of incompatible choices.” When the US finally established an agency that would set technological standards—and it was, in 1901, the last major economic power to do so—“the result was a boom in product innovation in all aspects of life during the 20th century.” (More energy efficiency stories.)

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