Transportation: More Government = Less Safety
Harry P. Wolfe and John Semmens
The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, August, 1986. Numbers
in brackets are page numbers from magazine.]
Semmens is an economist for the Arizona Department of Transportation,
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect Departmental policy.
Wolfe is co-author of Aviation Industry Regulation, a recently
published text in the field of air transportation. How the
profit motive promotes safety.
1900 people died in airline crashes in 1985. This "worst year"
in civil aviation history has spawned strident demands for
reregulation and more government involvement in the airline
industry. The notion that government involvement assures safety
should have been eliminated by the Challenger Space Shuttle
tragedy. The Space Shuttle program is a totally government
controlled, multi-billion dollar undertaking. If bureaucracy
and big spending could guarantee safety, this tragedy would
not have happened.
to much of the current discussion which hints at the modest
reduction of government controls over the airline industry
as the source of increased accidents, the history of aviation
demonstrates that government has more frequently created problems
than solved them. The rather sorry record of government's
role in aviation began before the first aircraft got off the
everyone knows, the Wright brothers invented the first controllable
airplane. Many people may be vaguely aware that this feat
was accomplished without benefit of Federal aid. Few, however,
are aware that government-funded efforts to develop a heavier-than-air
flying machine prior to the Wright brothers' venture were
a total failure.
period preceding the December 17, 1903 Wright brothers' triumph
at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the U.S. government spent $70,000
on a grant to Dr. Samuel Langley to develop a heavier-than-air
flying machine. The award of this grant followed standard
bureaucratic procedures. Dr. Langley, director of the Smithsonian
In stitution, was one of the most renowned scientists of the
time. When Dr. Langley became interested in investigating
flight he was able to marshal tremendous technical and financial
of Langley as the recipient of government funding was technically
unassailable. It was the type of decision that a well motivated
government bureaucracy would make time and again. The credentials
were impressive. The funding was more than adequate. Yet,
despite the head start and more lavish budget enjoyed by Dr.
Langley, it was the Wrights who succeeded.
7, 1903, the aircraft developed by Dr. Langley's team was
deemed ready for a test flight. The aircraft was to be launched
[p. 309] from a catapult on a houseboat in the Potomac
River, with Charles Manly serving as pilot. Excitement filled
the air as the houseboat reached the launch site. A large
crowd gathered, fireworks were set off, and newspapermen jockeyed
for position in the hope of witnessing the momentous occasion
of man's first flight.
were raised and hearts quickened as the aircraft's engine
roared to life. At full throttle the craft was released from
restraint and lunged along the catapult track toward launch.
A few seconds of glorious acceleration were followed by an
unceremonious plunge into the Potomac by the would-be airplane.
and aircraft were salvaged and preparations were made for
another flight. On December 8, 1903, with diminished fanfare,
another test flight was attempted. Unfortunately the aircraft
became entangled in the launching mechanism, was severely
damaged, and toppled into the river.
more than a week later the Wright brothers successfully flew
a heavier-than-air machine. Disappointed at being bested in
the effort to develop an airplane, Dr. Langley, in a fashion
that has come to characterize the persistent failure of government
undertakings, laid much of the blame on "inadequate" Federal
Dr. Langley was engaged in epitomizing the typical government
approach to problem solving, two young entrepreneurs were
experimenting with their own airplane. The Wright brothers
had no Federal money to support their research. Instead they
used $2,000 of the money they earned from their bicycle business
to develop their flyer. They worked on the flyer in their
spare time while managing their bicycle shop. On numerous
occasions the Wright brothers actually refused financial assistance
from private contributors for fear that it would take them
away from their business and make them complacent. Wilbur
Wright told his father that the demands of his business forced
him to be more cautious about the use of his time, and to
carry out his experiments in the most expeditious manner possible.Conserving
Federal subsidies had been unable to buy Dr. Langley success,
what chance would the Wright brothers' unfunded venture expect
to have? Surprisingly, their chances were a lot better than
might be imagined. Freed from the subsidy-induced waste and
indolence that plagues government funded operations, the Wright
brothers' limited financial resources actually contributed
to their success. Because they could not afford the costs
associated with repeated flight tests of their airplane, they
developed a wind tunnel to test aerodynamic designs. This
saved them a great deal of time. The Wright brothers were
the first men to compile data from which an airplane could
be designed. With limited finances, it was far easier to correct
errors on paper than to continually rebuild a test model that
was improperly designed.
brothers' use of the wind tunnel not only saved them time,
but also their lives. Other airmen of the day were quick to
flight-test inoperable aircraft, and lost their lives in the
process. Orville and Wilbur Wright, on the other hand, did
not believe in taking unnecessary risks. Wilbur Wright conducted
his glider flights close to the ground in case an accident
occurred. He didn't want to get hurt since a fall would interrupt
his experimenting. [p. 310]
17, 1903, only nine days after Langley's unsuccessful venture
on the Potomac, the Wright brothers successfully launched
their flyer from the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
The longest flight lasted 59 seconds, traveled 852 feet, and
ushered in the era of manned flight.
between the efforts of Dr. Samuel Langley and the Wright brothers
is thought-provoking. Orville and Wilbur Wright spent $2,000
of their own funds and succeeded. Dr. Langley spent $70,000
in Federal funds and failed. Why were the Wright brothers
successful, especially when they spent far less money than
their government counterparts? The Pursuit of Profit
lies in part in the motivating force behind the Wright brothers'
and Langley's efforts. The Wright brothers were motivated
by the pursuit of profit. Langley was attempting to advance
the "public welfare." While the profit motive suffers much
derision at the hands of the economically ignorant, it is
mankind's best known means of promoting productive use of
resources. In contrast, the use of collective force in the
name of altruistic goals has compiled a sorry record of waste,
stagnation, and oppression.
motive caused the Wright brothers to place a premium on minimizing
the costs of their experiments, eliminating waste, and making
the best use of their time. Langley, as a beneficiary of Federal
largesse, had no real incentive to minimize his costs. In
fact, the mark of success for a government research program
is often measured in terms of the amount of money expended
on the effort.
examples of the contrasting attitudes toward incurring expenses
are indicative. No government undertaking can be expected
to function without a staff of administrators. Dr. Langley,
naturally, hired such a staff. The Wright brothers conducted
their own research and hired no administrators. Dr. Langley
spent a considerable sum on his houseboat launch facilities.
The Wright brothers launched their airplane from a 60-foot
track that cost $4 to construct.
only the profit motive that made the Wrights cautious about
the expenditure of funds. It was the fact that they were using
their own money. People will be more careful when they are
spending or investing their own hard-earned wealth. Wasting
the "free money" from government grants is a lot easier. Using
their own funds inspired the Wright brothers to be much more
systematic in their experiments. For example, the Wrights
perfected their aircraft's control system through hundreds
of glider flights before they ever affixed a motor to the
contrivance. Langley, on the other hand, attempted to master
control over the machine and powered flight simultaneously.
reason that the Wright brothers' decision to use their own
money contributed to their success was that it enabled them
to maintain their independence. When money is bestowed, there
are generally conditions attached. Many times, scientific
curiosity must be sacrificed to fulfill the expectations of
the government bureaucracy. Many of the unconventional theories
and experiments carried out by the Wright brothers might never
have been tolerated if they had been conducted under the eye
of government administrators.
results of its early attempt to promote aviation have not
[p. 311] deterred government from subsequent meddling.
Effective utilization of the technology of air travel is still
retarded by government ownership and operation of the air
traffic control network and the vast majority of airports.
In addition to this direct interference, government imposes
complicated regulations on air carrier operations.
continued interventions of government in the aviation industry
create red tape and divert scarce resources from more productive
uses. Airlines, instead of being able to focus on efficiently
providing air transportation, are forced to adhere to rigid
problems with airline safety, contrary to much of the media
debate, have nothing to do with the 1978 deregulation of air
routes and fare. Few media accounts accurately portray precisely
what was and wasn't deregulated. Safety regulation was not
changed by the 1978 Act. Any deficiencies in the area of airline
safety are deficiencies under the continued government regulation
of safety. Fares, Routes, SafetyLet us compare the relative
performances of the airline industry in the categories that
were deregulated vs. those that were not. The deregulation
of fares brought lower prices for consumers. The deregulation
of routes brought more frequent and convenient service. It
is safety&emdash;the one key aspect of air service that was
retained under governmental authority&emdash;that appears
to be underperforming.
of relative performances of fares and convenience (both deregulated)
vs. safety (regulated) supports a conclusion directly opposite
to that which is currently touted in fashionable circles.
Namely, it is clear that discarding the benefits of deregulation
by reintroducing government controls over fares and routes
would do nothing for airline safety. To the contrary, it is
becoming more obvious that the 1978 deregulation did not go
far enough. If safety were also de-regulated we would have
the opportunity to enjoy the same kind of improved results
that we've seen in fares and schedules.
of expanded government controls and coercion as the only reliable
approach to improved safety scoff at the idea that a profit-hungry
industry could monitor its own safety. But as we have seen
from the earliest example contrasting public sector and private
sector approaches, pursuit of profit is not in conflict with
promotion of safety. After all, it was the non-profit motivated,
government-funded Langley plane that crashed. It was the profit-seeking,
privately funded Wright plane that safely achieved man's first
profit motive would be a more effective means of promoting
safety than an army of bureaucrats should be self-evident.
Crashes cost money and drive up operating expenses&emdash;either
to pay for damage and its consequences or to pay insurance
premiums that will rise with a poor safety record. Crashes
also disrupt business and scare away passengers. Profits will
be hurt by either rising expenses or falling passenger revenues.
Obviously, then, profit-seeking airlines have very strong
economic incentives to conduct safe operations.
are to learn a lesson from the "worst year" in aviation history,
let it be the right lesson. The air disasters of 1985 are
evidence for less, not more, government involvement in aviation.
* [p. 312]
study guides, books, and videos:
Tools for economic education
a program of E Pluribus Unum Films
2247 Fifteenth West, Seattle, Washington 98119
Conrad Denke, President -- Gregory Rehmke, Program Director