by I. M. Patient
Of course the Americans conquered their Western frontier pretty effectively. But there was another country which set about the same task in a different way…..
This country was bounded to the West by a desert. One day a telescope built on one of the country’s mountains revealed what looked like sea far away beyond the desert which would have to be crossed in order to discover if there was habitable land on the coast. So the politicians got together and established a government agency to send some people through the desert. They called it the National Agricultural Frontier Administration, NAFA for short, and charged it with a dramatic task to demonstrate the vigour of the nation: it would carry out a “mission” to send people right through the desert to the West coast of the continent and bring them back safely, within a decade.
NAFA got to work. They used the telescope on the mountain bordering the desert to look out and prepare the best maps that they could. They mounted short “missions” of one or two days out into the desert and back again. And finally they produced designs for a special “desert-waggon” that would be able to take a crew of three people across the desert and back again, carrying all its own supplies in case there was nothing but desert beyond. NAFA called the people who were to go on these “missions” “WAGGONAUTS”. A special feature of NAFA’s desert-waggon design was that as supplies were exhausted, the “waggonauts” would abandon individual parts of the enormous vehicle in order to save taking them all the whole distance, arriving back home in just a little waggon.
So then NAFA divided up the work and gave contracts to companies in every part of the country to help build this astonishing vehicle, and finally they carried out the “mission”. The whole nation was fascinated to hear the result, and the public were all very pleased that it went smoothly: The desert-waggon worked fine, and the “waggonauts” returned quite safely, saying that the desert was a truly beautiful place, and there was indeed plenty of land beyond. The bill for the “mission” was as much as the whole nation normally spent in a year on clothing, but no-one minded because it was so exciting.
Then NAFA mounted a second “mission”. This was exactly like the first. And like the first it returned safely, with similar reports. The crew of “waggonauts” made stirring speeches about the importance of their great “mission”, and the public were pleased that they all got back okay.
Then NAFA mounted a third “mission”. People weren’t quite so interested. After all, everyone knew what the “waggonauts” would say when they got back: “There’s lots of land out there, and the views during the journey are fantastic.” This “mission” didn’t work so well. Several parts of the desert-waggon and much of the crew’s supplies were severely damaged in a fire one night, and the “waggonauts” only just managed to return safely. The public were relieved at that.
Then NAFA mounted a fourth “mission”. The public really weren’t very interested this time, but it went fine anyway.
Then NAFA mounted a fifth “mission”. That was very like the fourth. By now the public were beginning to ask why NAFA kept sending out these “missions”. NAFA spoke of their high duty, and said that they had to keep sending “waggonauts” out there in case they discovered something new.
Then NAFA mounted a sixth “mission”. This was pretty much like the fifth “mission” except that this time the “waggonauts” took some special bicycles with them and wheeled about in the new land they had found. They said it was good fun. But they didn’t discover anything new, and the public began to complain that they shouldn’t keep spending taxpayers’ money on these pointless “missions”. NAFA didn’t agree, and spoke of the high duty of their “waggonauts” to explore this distant land. So the public said that if the land was so important perhaps more people should get to go and live there. But NAFA said that this wasn’t a good idea. Only “waggonauts” could go on “missions”; it was far too expensive for anyone to go there to live; and the land wasn’t actually at all valuable; but NAFA should still be paid to go on sending “waggonauts” out there.
So NAFA mounted a seventh “mission”. This was exactly like the sixth “mission”. When they returned, the “waggonauts” made stirring speeches about this new frontier, but frankly no-one was very interested in what they had to say about their exclusive, taxpayer-funded carryings-on, and finally they voted to stop the “missions”.
But by now NAFA was an impressive organisation. Its desert activities were the largest research effort in the country, indeed in the world, and everyone agreed that “desert engineering” was an important new field. So although the government told NAFA to stop these “missions” to the West coast, they didn’t close NAFA down. In fact NAFA had begun to campaign for funding to enable it to “open up” the desert that their “waggonauts” had begun to explore. They spoke impressively of their high duty, and proposed in particular to build a NEW TYPE of desert-waggon which would carry more “waggonauts”, and would be “re-usable”: It could be used over and over again, a bit like an ordinary waggon in fact, so that the cost of each mission would be less.
There was a lot of debate over this plan; people weren’t sure it would be worth paying NAFA to build a NEW type of desert-waggon. But politicians in every part of the country argued that it would “create jobs” locally. People weren’t ENTIRELY convinced by this argument; after all, if you spend money on ANYTHING you “create jobs”. Even some politicians understood this, but they argued it anyway. Being seen to “create jobs” was good for getting votes, after all.
And then the military said they wouldn’t mind having a vehicle to place large telescopes at certain points out in the great desert. NAFA enlarged their new desert-waggon design to accommodate this, and the government finally voted to pay for it.
The new desert-waggon took a lot longer to develop than the original one. NAFA had scrapped that one and destroyed all the plans (nobody was QUITE sure why) and was starting from scratch. Once again NAFA gave contracts to companies in every part of the country. To cut a long story short, the “new, improved” desert-waggon carried six “waggonauts” instead of three, and it cost TWICE as much to carry equipment with them as the original vehicle.
It also turned out that the new desert-waggon wasn’t very reliable. By now the public had grown used to the idea that NAFA continually spent vast amounts of their money to send small numbers of NAFA staff out into the desert, but they were rather surprised when one of the new desert-waggons burst into flames in full view of the crowd that was waving goodbye, and the “waggonauts” were all killed.
Politicians immediately explained that it would be quite unreasonable of the public to expect desert-waggons to actually WORK. After all, the desert was a “new frontier” (well, only three decades old), and everyone should be grateful to NAFA for, er, something or other (it wasn’t QUITE clear what). NAFA officials of course spoke impressively of their high duty to explore this terrible frontier, and built another vehicle exactly like the one that had exploded, at further enormous cost to the public.
Now around this time a number of ordinary waggon-designers, who had been ignored for years, began to say that they couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. Sure, a trip to the West coast was a long journey, so you needed a pretty carefully designed waggon. But, now that they knew what was involved, and NAFA had designed a whole lot of systems that worked perfectly well and were public property, it wasn’t difficult to design a vehicle that would cost as little as 10% of the cost of the original missions.
Some of these independent designers even went as far as trying to raise the money to do it. They reckoned that if they could make it quite cheap to get to the coast, people would find some use for the desert instead of just driving about in it making scientific measurements. But they had a real difficulty: No-one with any money believed them. After all, NAFA employed 40,000 experienced desert-waggon engineers, If, with all their combined experience, they designed vehicles that cost a vast amount for each “waggonaut” to travel out into the desert, that must be what it cost, mustn’t it? When the independents explained that NAFA had no interest in designing cheap desert-waggons, people didn’t believe this. And when they pointed out that after 25 years of effort NAFA had actually raised the cost of going into the desert by more than 100%, people thought it was pretty unpatriotic to criticise NAFA, which had done so much to open up this great frontier for, er, for their “waggonauts”.
Now, in order to “protect the public”, the government had also made it illegal for anyone else to go out into the desert in a vehicle without NAFA’s officials okaying the design. And somehow none of the independents’ designs ever quite reached NAFA’s standards, which weren’t actually written down anywhere, but were based on their enormous experience. As a result no members of the public were killed, only NAFA’s “waggonauts”.
Actually, in private a number of desert-waggon engineers agreed that maybe “desert research” might be done a BIT cheaper. But they wouldn’t say this in public. NAFA was the only source of desert-research funding around, and of course they didn’t want to lose their contracts.
By now, true to its high duty, NAFA had developed educational programs which they gave to schools across the whole country, teaching children the history of NAFA, and the details of all their past “missions”, and how to design desert-waggons, and the names and life-histories of the heroic NAFA “waggonauts”, arid the glorious plans for future NAFA “missions”, and how to write to politicians to persuade the government to increase NAFA’s budget. Taxpayers paid for all this as well of course.
Furthermore other countries with similar bureaucratic tendencies had established their own agency, called FAFA. They were pretty proud when, starting decades after NAFA, they got their “mission” costs to the same level as NAFA! They also called some of their own staff “waggonauts” who had special meetings with NAFA’s “waggonauts”, while their administrators met and discussed the cost of desert-waggons, and how to get more money from taxpayers.
Like NAFA, FAFA’s administrators and “waggonauts” also made speeches about how important their work was. The public in these other countries tried hard to be interested, but they could never really QUITE grasp the bit about why THEY had to pay for the “waggonauts” and their “missions”? “Because it’s too expensive for the “waggonauts” to pay for themselves, of course” they were told. “Yes, but, um, why does that mean that WE, have to pay?” “Because of our high duty.” So it went.
However, by now NAFA were engaged on developing a “waggonaut habitation facility” at truly stunning cost to the taxpayer.
This would house six “waggonauts” right out in the desert for fully several weeks at a time, and could actually be VISITED by the desert-waggons during their “missions”.
The independents were amazed. They pointed out that the “waggonaut habitation facility” was in fact a small house, and could be built and transported out into the desert for little more than the cost of an ordinary house. And they went further. Technology had been developing so rapidly during NAFA’s thirty-year life that the independents had improved their own designs of desert-waggon so far that they could now see how to reduce the cost of desert travel by 99% to a level that many of the public could afford. The public were of course fascinated by the idea. They had all heard “waggonauts” giving speeches about how amazing it was out in the desert, and they were keen to see for themselves. So they asked NAFA if they could go too.
At this the officials at NAFA became very solemn. This was ABSOLUTELY out of the question. ONLY NAFA’s (and FAFA’s) “waggonauts” could go out into the desert. “Missions” were FAR too important and difficult for mere “ordinary members of the public” to take part. But, since this showed that the public were keen for even more desert activity, NAFA was happy to propose that the public should pay for NAFA to start a new “Desert Exploration Initiative”, greater and more difficult than any previous mission: NAFA would build a fleet of ENTIRELY NEW desert-wagons, which would carry at least six NAFA “waggonauts” right across the desert (something they hadn’t done for twenty years now despite the cosmic amounts of money that they used), and then explore RIGHT ALONG THE COAST. This would cost a truly heroic amount of taxpayers’ money, commensurate with NAFA’s importance, and fully ten times what the original mission across the desert had cost. It would double the nation’s debt at a stroke, and demonstrate clearly what a stupendous organisation NAFA was….. or something.
The public were amazed at how expensive this new frontier was. And some of them began loyally campaigning for the government to raise taxes to pay for the new “DEI”,
The independents were aghast, not only at NAFA’s increasingly insane behaviour but also at the public’s gullibility, and they wished that the people did not have such blind faith in politicians and their agencies.
Then NAFA had another setback. They had designed a colossal “desert mirror” that their desert-waggon would place out on a mountain in the desert in order to see the coast better. At a cost to the public one thousand times that of an ordinary mirror, this was put on top of the chosen desert mountain. But when the “waggonauts” got back they discovered that the mirror was the wrong shape. The public were puzzled. Didn’t NAFA employ tens of thousands of the most highly qualified desert-engineers? So how come the mirror didn’t work? But NAFA explained smoothly that this was an IMMENSELY difficult task, way beyond anything that the public could reasonably expect them to achieve, and that in any case it was really very valuable having a slightly bent mirror on the desert mountain, at whatever cost.
The public weren’t all convinced by this, though, and some journalists decided to investigate the story. They discovered that in fact NAFA no longer employed the best engineers. Indeed it was full of elderly managers who had helped with the very first mission over twenty years before, and who liked best to reminisce about those days. And far from being heroic figures, the “waggonauts” were perfectly ordinary, in fact rather boring people, very like people you find in any large government bureaucracy.
All the young engineers – well there weren’t actually many young engineers in the country any more. Young people found it more fun to watch fictional movies of what it was like on the frontier, rather than study engineering just to help a tiny number of government “waggonauts” make occasional incomprehensible “missions” out into the desert.
At about this time NAFA started a “commercialisation initiative”: They invited businesses to pay for some of their “missions”, or bits of equipment on the desert-waggons. This of course made no sense at all commercially since a business has to earn revenues to cover its costs. But NAFA argued that the reluctance of businesses to join in their “missions” showed what a good job NAFA was doing performing tasks too difficult for mere “private enterprise” to carry out.
Some journalists now began to describe NAFA as a “stagnant bureaucracy”, and so the Vice-President of the country announced that he would establish a Committee to examine “without fear and without favour” whether NAFA still served the public interest, or whether, as government departments sometimes need, it should be re-organised. This seemed a good idea, and was a popular move.
HOWEVER, NAFA was still a very large and influential organisation, and of course it employed directly or indirectly ALL the desert engineers in the country. So, in recognition of NAFA’s expertise, it was decided that NAFA should choose the members of the Vice-President’s Committee! And furthermore, as NAFA argued convincingly, the Vice-President was really not expert in desert-engineering matters, so it would be much better if the Committee reported to… the Head of NAFA! ASTOUNDING though this may seem, this is what was decided! (Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction!) You can imagine how the Committee’s report read when it was finally published:
“Desert-research” is an IMMENSELY difficult undertaking. NAFA is a SUPERB organisation, and it tackles this daunting task with imagination, dedication, and the bravery of its indomitable “waggonauts”. NAFA’s efforts are however hampered by one problem; its budget is far too small, and it should be increased by 100% – or, er, why not 200%?”
The public were reassured to know that the Vice-President’s Committee had examined NAFA closely, and reached this conclusion. Especially when FAFA wrote to the Vice-President adding its impressive voice to that of all the desert-engineering experts who were unanimously praising the report.
Needless to say, the independents and the increasingly sceptical journalists were stunned, and they began to despair of ever escaping from this truly insane situation… And the public, some of whom could remember thirty years before being promised excitement and wealth on this “new frontier”, became increasingly puzzled, and lost any interest in the new frontier. In the schools the nation’s children stopped studying engineering and science and turned instead to taking strange psychoactive drugs and following irrational religions, since the future seemed so unutterably boring.
“And so….” sceptical readers might well ask “assuming for the moment that we accept that this preposterous, incredible farce did actually happen, how do you propose that it finally ended?”
Unfortunately the story handed down becomes confused at this point. What seems to have happened is this: By now it could be only a matter of time before NAFA would be closed down – still several years, though, since politicians don’t like to admit mistakes, and NAFA retained a great amount of influence to delay its demise. And of course, so long as NAFA continued to exist, no sensible commercial desert waggon business could start.
However, in the meantime NAFA became increasingly irrelevant, because it seems that some of the independent waggon designers travelled to a small country far away beyond the desert. There some ingenious engineers welcomed the independents, and listened to their ideas, and together they built cheap desert-waggons. These were so cheap to operate that they offered rides out into the desert and along the coast for paying passengers, and even built hotels there for people to stay in.
Eventually many ordinary members of the public were regularly going abroad to take trips out into the desert, and even seeing NAFA’s “waggonauts” struggling with their strange equipment out there. Then they finally realised that NAFA’s technology was not the best in the world, and that as a matter of fact it was over-sophisticated and commercially worthless. Then the politicians finally voted against giving NAFA any more taxpayers’ money and it was closed down, having wasted a generation and allowed the country to fall behind other countries in desert activities.
But of course this terrible story DIDN’T happen in the USA. Americans didn’t do anything so stupid as to entrust the development of the new frontier to a government monopoly. They relied instead on the vigour and ingenuity of the people themselves to find ways of reducing costs and creating commercial opportunities – with great success. And in opening up the West they reinforced the “frontier spirit” that, has maintained the USA’s” pre-eminence. And they did the same with equal success in the conquest of the air: It was the brilliant, independent bicycle-makers Wilbur and Orville Wright who invented flight not the government-funded Langley – and within thirty years commercial airlines covered the globe (though it took the US government 45 years to officially recognise the Wright brothers’ genius).
And no such terrible thing could ever happen in the USA, could it? Because of course American ideology warns against any such foolish behaviour. The long and bitter experience of the founders of the Constitution led them to warn specifically against trusting government. It’s not that people in government are particularly criminal or dishonest or lazy (though they are no less so than anyone else), but “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, and there are some things that government cannot do.
Once you set up a government monopoly, particularly a large one, it rapidly becomes extremely difficult to control. The monopoly immediately develops its own objectives, the FIRST one being survival, so it NEVER FINISHES ITS TASK, which becomes more and more complex and expensive. It also creates interest groups; crushes incipient competition in order to protect its prestige; and develops power to influence the government, the behaviour of whole industries, and eventually the perceptions of the whole population – particularly if it’s allowed to use public funds to campaign for itself. So it can waste ANY amount of taxpayers* money; FAIL to achieve the task it was designed to achieve; and waste DECADES of time in the process.
So of course that’s why this never happened in the USA. Lucky for America!