In the ’30s and ’40s, the Library of Congress sponsored John Lomax and his son Alan’s peregrinations around the South recording folk songs (rather broadly interpreted, I suppose), in the hopes of preserving the music of a culture that was on the cusp of enormous change.
I can’t help feel that it is unlikely that a corporation would undertake to do this–there is no obvious market incentive. And yet this collection of music (and there’s a lot of stuff, not just music, “available at the Library of Congress’s American Memory collection”:http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ammemhome.html) can reasonably be said to lead directly to rock and roll in some very easily traceable ways (these recordings mark the first appearance of Leadbelly and Son House, for instance, both influences on rock and roll bands to the present day).
_This_ is why we need “big government”. Businesses rarely see beyond immediate markets and easily defined and quantified results, and I don’t think anyone could have made a business case for doing these recordings based on the incredibly forward-looking (some might suggest prescient) notion that a decade or more on, an industry would begin to grow as a result of these recordings that would eventually become fantastically lucrative.
In much the same way, where would the Internet be without the government; the telecommunications monopolies of the time didn’t even think packet-switching networks would _function_.
An organization that does not have such market constraints can take a longer view, or a more minute one, or a more far-out one; that’s why governments have traditionally been the largest sources of funding for “basic research”–research that serves only to advance the state of our knowledge, with no direct intent to create products or solve particular problems; one assumes that some day it will come in handy. Often it does.
It also seems to me that many of the most prominent sorts of people who complain about “big government” conveniently ignore the ways in which they benefit from “big government”.
There seem to be mushrooms-after-a-rain quantites of “self-made” business persons who went to public university, or even public schools–“big government” in action.
There’s the Steve Forbes of the world who would probably not be making as much money if he had to ship all his magazines via Federal Express instead of the USPS.
There’s the Rupert Murdochs who would have a hell of a time distributing his newspapers and magazines without highways, and probably wouldn’t have made quite as much money if the FCC didn’t regulate the airwaves, because competing against existing larger companies would have been impossible.
Etc., etc. Often these complaints seem accompanied by comments about how efficient businesses are compared to government, which seems to me to be another specious claim.
Mind you, I’m not for having the government waste my money–but the amount spent on stuff like the humanities or basic reasearch or even meals for children is a tiny fraction of the amount being spent on the military or simply servicing the national debt. It seems to me that if you really want to trim the fat in the government, you might consider starting with the places that are eating the most, especially since there is plenty of documentation of waste and even fraud; I mean, “the Pentagon can’t even account for where it’s money goes”:http://www.taxpayer.net/TCS/wastebasket/nationalsecurity/5-18-00.htm.