Lessons from the Wright Brothers

I just¬†finished David McCullough’s recently published book titled, The Wright Brothers. It is a fantastic quick-paced read detailing the journey of two close brothers and their aviation success story. I found there are a few liberty-themed elements to the story that are worth pointing out, but recommend the book to those looking for more breadth and depth, as it is a quite fantastic tale.

First, it struck me how difficult heavier than air flight was to imagine before it had been invented, and it may be likened to challenges today with self-driving cars or artificial intelligence. These are ideas that we can form, but at the same time there are some obstacles that keep us from really understanding how they will play out and develop, whether cars will ever be truly autonomous and able to handle certain types of events or what A.I. will be like or if it is even possible. When you are looking up the learning curve from the bottom it is difficult to see the top.

Second, the aviation competition had largely died off the years immediately proceeding the successful flight at Kitty Hawk, NC except a few days prior to the Wright Brother’s successful flight. Samuel Langely at the Smithsonian attempted to launch his flying machine. It was a failure and almost cost the pilot his life. We learn that from start to finish, over about four years, the Wright Brothers spent about $1000 (not adjusted) to get their flyer off the ground. At the same time, Langely spent $50,000 in publicly funded grant money plus another $20,000 in private funds to get his machine to crash in the Potomac.

This highly funded failure is reminiscent of the battle between Vanderbuilt and the heavily subsidized Robert Fulton in the steamship industry as detailed in The Myth of the Robber Barons. The economic lesson is similar too. The Wright Brothers internalized their costs. While Langely had fewer constraints, much of his costs had been externalized by pushing them on the public. Of course, there was a significant amount of private funds invested as well, which is normal in these types of ventures. No venture is guaranteed, publicly funded or private, but the public funding sent a signal to private investors that encouraged funding that may have not occurred, either at all or in that amount. It is a perfect demonstration of how public money prevents the proper feedback to control costs and sends bad market signals to other actors. In sum, not only was the public money likely for naught, but it encouraged extra private investment that was also for naught.*

Overall the book was a very enjoyable read, and McCullough is in his typical form, weaving well narrative of these two eccentric, brilliant, and innovative brothers.

*For more on incentives involved with public and private spending I suggest reading or listening to the following:

  • Mike Munger and Russ Roberts discuss private and public risk-taking on Econtalk.
  • An argument that government funding of science crowds out progress. Here is a podcast on the topic.

James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Questions, complaints and hysterics can be sent to james@reasonedliberty.com or follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1. All views are my own and not of my employers, wife or children.

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