Advocates of increasing taxes and government spending frequently point to the existence of the Internet to make their case. “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” President Obama said in a recent speech arguing that entrepreneurs aren’t entitled to all the riches they generate. After all, “government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” The implication is that government deserves a bigger slice of the wealth created in the private sector because that wealth was impossible without the initial taxing and spending — and because future taxing and spending will facilitate even more wealth.
This argument is not just wrong but revealing in several interesting ways.
The real history of the creation of the Internet is far more complicated than the president seems to appreciate — and, as Andrew Morriss points out, that history suggests “today’s Net occurred as much despite government funding as because of it.” Nonetheless, let’s stipulate that it’s true that “government research created the Internet.” It’s not true that it created the Internet “so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
Here it’s worth remembering what motivated the creation of ARPANET, a packet-switching network that formed the foundation of the early Internet. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: It was the desire to be able to annihilate America’s enemies in a nuclear holocaust.
The Pentagon of the 1960s needed a communications network that could survive a nuclear first strike by the Soviets and enable the Pentagon to send signals to its distributed installations in order to launch nuclear weapons in retaliation.
In other words, the creation of ARPANET was part of the nation’s critical investment in national-security and defense systems. Indeed, the modern commercial Net as we know it was an accidental spillover from this national-security project. The notion that it was done “so that all the companies could make money off the Internet” is bizarre.