“Advances invented either solely or partly by government institutions include, as mentioned before, the computer, mouse, Internet, digital camera, and email. Not to mention radar, the jet engine, satellites, fiber optics, artificial limbs, and nuclear energy. (…) Even those inventions that come from corporations often come not from startups exposed to the free market, but from de facto state-owned monopolies. For example, during its fifty years as a state-sanctioned monopoly, the infamous Ma Bell invented (via its Bell Labs division) transistors, modern cryptography, solar cells, the laser, the C programming language, and mobile phones…” – “Competence of Government

I think it’s worth paying attention to the fact that, of this apparently arbitrary list of inventions, none of them came from the current US political system (I’ll abbreviate CUSPS). Every one of them was developed many decades ago. And more specifically, every one of them was developed between about 1930 and 1975. Electricity, automobiles, telephones, telegraphs, airplanes, movies, radios, and other much older inventions aren’t included either. Rather than general examples of innovative government, across different cultures and time periods, these are all from one specific political system (the immediate predecessor to CUSPS).

If we were merely using this time period as an example, to show government could innovate, one data point suffices. If we were economic historians, dispassionately debating how large the space of possible civilizations was, we could stop there. However, in what Scott calls the motte-and-bailey defense, that is never how this argument is used in practice. For one example, if you Google (eg.) site:ycombinator.com “government” “arpanet”, of the first ten results every one is in the context of a policy debate about what CUSPS should do and what our attitude should be towards it. ARPANET and things in its category are invariably used, de facto, as justifications for CUSPS, despite not having been created by CUSPS.

Scott’s model of how the world operates here is (to quote) “de novo invention seems to come mostly from very large organizations that can afford basic research”; this is a much stronger claim than that the evidence shows “examples exist of large organizations which did well at de novo invention”, or (a quote from the introduction to the document) “we [can’t] be absolutely certain free market always works better than government before we even investigate the issue”. Given more detailed historical data, I would suggest an alternative model.

In the US, there had always been a great deal of innovation, before the federal government was funding it en masse, and even before the federal government had much power at all. Railroads and steamships and telegraphs came from a time when Washington D.C. could not prevent half the states from raising their own armies and fighting a bloody civil war, much the same as the government in 2014 Iraq.

Later, in the 1930s, the immensely more powerful federal government created policies (taxation, fixed regulatory costs, the SEC, etc.) that strongly favored large organizations over smaller ones. The pre-existing base of inventive individuals, like everyone else, then simply got sucked into large institutions for lack of anywhere else to go. This neatly explains the entire historical trajectory. There were smart guys who invented stuff; the government then hired most of them, so most inventions started coming out with a government logo stamped on them; and when CUSPS was created, its incompetence started driving the smart guys away, again increasing private innovation at the expense of public.