The skeletal structure of President Obama’s Summer campaign message in Roanoke, Virginia, received whatever muscle and flesh it still needed to fully come alive with one stroke of a pen on May 9. The Executive Order — the “Open Data Policy” — requires federal agencies to make their publicly accessible data open and machine-readable by default. The Policy is the newest excuse to claim illegitimate credit for the legitimate innovation that occurs in the private sector.
The Obama Administration pitched the decision as a catalyst for innovation, citing startups like weather and dashboard navigation apps using Global Position Systems (GPS) as examples of the way government spurs free market breakthroughs. It’s the “Industrial Age’s” 21st Century “Information Age” equivalent of FDRs Work Projects Administration (WPA). The President pitched the new plan, saying,
“One of the things we’re doing to fuel more private sector innovation and discovery is to make vast amounts of America’s data open and easy to access for the first time in history. And talented entrepreneurs are doing some pretty amazing things with it…Starting today, we’re making even more government data available online, which will help launch even more new startups. And we’re making it easier for people to find the data and use it, so that entrepreneurs can build products and services we haven’t even imagined yet.”
So what’s wrong with the federal government role playing as “Thomas Edison’s daddy”? Think President Rutherford B. Hayes claiming he actually invented the light bulb because Edison made his claim of invention via the U.S. Patent Office, during President Rutherford’s time in the Oval Office.
Is this REALLY the role of the U.S. Chief Information Officer and U.S. Chief Technology Officer’s offices to have, much less make, this much service data available? [See Starry Eyed Wonder Boys of the Obama Administration here]. Doesn’t it raise questions about how far we’ve strayed from the enumerated powers prescribed to the federal government? Within these strict guidelines, one has to wonder why the government would have much data that entrepreneurs would find useful?
There was a time when the government stood for something. The difference is now they stand for everything and nothing all at the same time; services without customer service.
In truth, government helps the private sector grow by promoting economic freedom — largely staying out of our way while enforcing a clear, limited set of rules indiscriminately across the board to provide a level playing field. Swaths of economic data and anecdotal experience reveal that government is not nearly as efficient at anything as the free market engine of the private sector because the profit motive doesn’t exist in government (unless you count crony capitalism) and the profit motive is what drives efficiency. You are more successful when you eliminate waste. The government is more successful when it creates waste because waste creates a shortage of resources and an excuse to take more of yours. There is no need for a profit motive in a system that has the benefit of force by law. If a company in the private sector, having the profit motive, was arranged the same way, it wouldn’t be long before the value of force would create a little thing called monopoly and the same crowd that swoons for big government would be saying the business was being “unfair” to the little guy.
Famed economist Milton Friedman said it best when he recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”
If data collection and dissemination is the objective, arguably, the greatest information databases generated by the Information Age, thus far, come from the private sector — Google and Facebook, come to mind. How have they built them without an IRS to collect data by force? They created services that aggregate and present information in a way that millions of consumers are attracted to and offered it free in a voluntary exchange for your data. What’s in it for them? A profit motive represented by targeted advertising models where they leverage the data they have collected from our voluntary engagement to bring billions in quarterly earnings. What happens when government makes data a commodity by making it “open by default”? It undercuts the profit motive associated with collecting a database and controlling data, the backbone of the entire industry. It’s a shortcut to a dead end.
Every Age has its innovators. Andrew Carnegie forged U.S. Steel Corporation and an Industrial Revolution in response to a marketplace desire to centralize the workforce for collaboration and convenience – the growth of metropolitan areas. Colonel John Stevens, the father of American Railroads, applied for the first U.S. railroad charter in 1815, pursued grants and began laying operational rail. Henry Ford perfected assembly line processes to put people on wheels out of a consumer desire for faster transportation. And on and on it goes. You don’t need government driving up the public debt in order to spur innovation. Even Obama’s famed “roads and bridges” would have, in time, come into existence under the same incentives that brought about their predecessors; namely, necessity and profit motive as the greatest incentives.
Government doesn’t create jobs, government re-appropriates your wealth (confiscation by force–a.k.a., “taxes”) to do the same things less efficiently in order to take credit for the activity. It’s only a government politician who has the hubris to look you in the eye and demand a “thank you” for taking your money before giving it back.