Francis Fukuyama interviews Peter Thiel in The American Interest, and they discuss our society’s recent stagnation:
Francis Fukuyama: Well, clearly, Silicon Valley was in many ways the product of a government industrial policy, DARPA. So much of the early technology, the creation of the internet itself, the early semiconductor industry, were really spinoffs from investments in military technology that were obviously pushed very strongly by the government.
Peter Thiel: My libertarian views are qualified because I do think things worked better in the 1950s and 60s, but it’s an interesting question as to what went wrong with DARPA. It’s not like it has been defunded, so why has DARPA been doing so much less for the economy than it did forty or fifty years ago? Parts of it have become politicized. You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different. There are very few people who are both great scientists and great politicians. So a conservative account of what happened with science in the 20th century is that we had a decentralized, non-governmental approach all the way through the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, the government could accelerate and push things tremendously, but only at the price of politicizing it over a series of decades. Today we have a hundred times more scientists than we did in 1920, but their productivity per capita is less that it used to be.
Francis Fukuyama: You certainly can’t explain the survival of the shuttle program except in political terms.
Peter Thiel: It was an extraordinary program. It cost more and did less and was probably less safe than the original Apollo program. In 2011, when it finally ended, there was a sense of the space age being over. Not quite, but it’s very far off from what we had decades ago. You could argue that we had more or better-targeted funding in the 1950s and 1960s, but the other place where the regulatory situation is radically different is that technology is much more heavily regulated than it used to be. It’s much harder to get a new drug through the FDA process. It takes a billion dollars. I don’t even know if you could get the polio vaccine approved today.
One regulatory perspective is that environmentalism has played a much greater role than people think. It induced a deep skepticism about anything involving the manipulation of nature or material objects in the real world. The response to environmentalism was to prohibit scientists from experimenting with stuff and only allow them to do so with bits. So computer science and finance were legal, and what they have in common is that they involve the manipulation of bits rather than stuff. They both did well in those forty years, but all the other engineering disciplines were stymied. Electric engineering, civil engineering, aeronautical, nuclear, petroleum—these were all held back, and attracted fewer talented students at university as the years went on. When people wonder why all the rocket scientists went to work on Wall Street, well, they were no longer able to build rockets. It’s some combination of an ossified, Weberian bureaucracy and the increasingly hostile regulation of technology. That’s very different from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s a powerful libertarian argument that government used to be far less intrusive, but found targeted ways to advance science and technology.
(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)