In his second inaugural address Bill Clinton, in a play on a trope, declared, "Government is not the problem and government is not the solution." Afterward, on PBS, the historian Stephen E. Ambrose singled out the remark. "I don't know what that means," Ambrose replied impatiently. "The government was surely a solution in the Depression and in World War II and on the civil-rights front and on providing a decent life for old folks in this country." Ambrose's views on World War II can be misty (on which, see Benjamin Schwarz's review in this issue), but his response to Clinton was refreshingly blunt. And that response comes to mind in thinking about two major articles in this issue of The Atlantic.
The cover story, "Freedom of the Skies," by the magazine's national correspondent, James Fallows, reports on the development of a new generation of small airplanes, planes that are so extraordinarily advanced in their efficiency, safety, and, above all, cheapness, that they hold the promise of a revolution in air travel. In a matter of years these new planes will make it possible for most people to fly as only private pilots and the very rich can today—on our own schedules, in small planes, to and from small, uncrowded airports all around the country.
The men who invented and developed these new planes are fairly typical of what we think of as great innovators. They are driven by a lifelong passion, they are risk-takers, and, most important, they are private individuals. In the American self-image the inventor-as-hero is never a G-man; indeed, he is the antithesis of big government, to some degree the natural enemy of the G-man.
This is mostly myth. If we look at the great moments in innovation, the developments that changed everything, we almost always find that the private geniuses did their bit, but the great, clumsy, heavy hand of government is frequently what turned that bit into a new way of life. Ford gave us the cheap car, but Eisenhower gave us the interstate. Edison gave us the light bulb, but the TVA wired the farms. Most of the great advances in flight, and all the advances in space flight, have their origins in government—specifically, military—work. So, too, with the Internet, which rose out of the government's ARPANET system. It was government that linked America's coasts by rail, government that constructed the Panama Canal, government that built all the really big stuff. The revolution in flight that Fallows describes came about not only because of the work of private geniuses but also because a bunch of bureaucrats at NASA pushed it, and because those bureaucrats were lucky to have had as their boss since 1992 an engineer named Daniel Goldin. As the administrator of NASA, Goldin championed the cause of the small-plane dreamers, synthesized and sold their ideas, and swung the great weight and force of the state behind their disparate individual efforts.
Another thing that governments can do more efficiently than private parties is overthrow other governments. In October of 1993 the U.S. government deployed the USS Harlan County on a peacekeeping mission to Haiti. The attempt failed, disastrously, because a local warlord named Emmanuel "Toto" Constant scared off the Harlan County with a dockside mob. As it happens, Constant had since early 1992 been a paid informant of the CIA. Humiliating the Harlan County eventually cost him his government job. Still, he had provided helpful information. So, as David Grann reports in his article "Giving 'the Devil' His Due," when U.S. soldiers finally did arrive, they didn't arrest Constant; they protected him from the very many people who would have liked to seize him, and he somehow managed to get out of Haiti and into the United States. He remains free in Queens, despite his recent conviction in absentia in a Haitian court on charges of murder. Toto Constant can tell us all about the power of big government.
Next month The Atlantic will offer a long and previously unpublished story by Mark Twain, titled "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," together with a foreword and an afterword by Roy Blount Jr. The story, which was written for this magazine 125 years ago but never ran, comes to us by means of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, a major repository of Twain materials. During the past several months the library has been sponsoring a Mark Twain Writing Competition. Briefly, the library has posted the beginning of the story on its Web site (www.buffalolib.org) and is inviting participants to compose their own versions of the rest of it. Finalists will be judged by a distinguished panel of writers and scholars. The deadline for entries is June 1.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.