A model shows a Huawei smartphone at a tech expo. Photo: Xinhua

During an interview on American Thought Leaders, Stephen Moore argued, with respect to engineering, that leaving innovation in the hands of business is preferable to government direction. He went so far as to state, “When you have government directing your investment through a centrally planned economy, a Soviet-style system, show me any time where that’s really worked.”

Well, how about Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, or, more generally, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin? In three decades, the Soviet Union went from a backward, industrially primitive country to challenge the United States for engineering supremacy in numerous areas, including aircraft, missiles, nuclear, and space. Soviet engineering achievement went hand in hand with developments in physics and, most especially, in mathematics. One need only mention Andrey Kolmogorov, a mathematician whose work in probability theory forms the basis of much advanced engineering and science.

Closer to home, during the greatest period of engineering in the United States, from the atomic bomb, through ICBMs and satellites, and to landing a man on the moon, strong central planning led the way. The 1950s and 1960s saw enormous innovation driven by competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. To a great extent, we continue to live off that innovation. While it is true that business participated, whole companies worked at government direction, in essence serving as national laboratories and production facilities, the formula promulgated by Benito Mussolini. The education system was driven by the need to find talent and prepare it to play its role in the engineering war. It was this meritocracy that allowed talented children born into the lower classes to rise to prominent positions in industry and academia.

We could go slightly further back and consider the massive German engineering advances from Otto von Bismarck through Kaiser Wilhelm, when German industry overtook that of Britain. Or we could consider individual achievements like the British development of radar to intercept German fighters during the Battle of Britain, or the American development of sonar to sink enemy shipping. In both cases, the first systems had serious flaws. These were fixed forthwith because the fates of the nations depended on it.

As exemplified by German industry at the beginning of the 20th century, the benefits of wise government intervention are not limited to military advances. While the disaster of ignorant government interference can be seen in Mao Zedong’s China, we see the advantage of intelligent intervention in today’s China. As reported in the South China Morning Post on May 21, with regard to fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks, Huawei Technologies founder Ren Zhengfei stated, “We sacrificed [the interests of] individuals and families for the sake of an ideal, to stand at the top of the world…. The current actions by American politicians underestimated our power.” The fundamental issue is power, not the lobotomized joy of people staring at their smartphones.

No doubt, individual profits motivate innovation, but what kind? The public does not purchase radar or sonar; it buys games, toys, and conveniences. When two societies are competing for dominance, toys count for nothing

No doubt, individual profits motivate innovation, but what kind? The public does not purchase radar or sonar; it buys games, toys, and conveniences. When two societies are competing for dominance, toys count for nothing. Dwight Eisenhower wanted intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and Jack Kennedy wanted a moon landing because they understood the real game. Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev also understood. Eisenhower learned at the Kasserine Pass and Khrushchev learned even better at Stalingrad. The struggle for survival leads to greater dedication and effort than the desire for profit. Perhaps had Moore spent a day at Stalingrad alongside Khrushchev in December 1942, he would understand this.

Government direction is no panacea for engineering achievement. Today, we have a great deal of direction via government funding. The issue is whether that direction is beneficial.

In the United States, most funding is aimed at the pop flavor of the day, not at fundamental problems that require exceptional mathematical ability and education. There is no Soviet Union to focus the minds of American leaders. Vast amounts of money are spent on pretty computer-generated pictures, and very little on the deep mathematical problems whose solutions lead to profound engineering breakthroughs.

Again, one might think of Kolmogorov, or his American counterpart, Norbert Wiener. One can hardly imagine Wiener in today’s research environment where consultants provide advice on how to write winnable research proposals. Content is of little value; style is key. Business provides slick consumer applications, while government funds a torrent of superficiality.

Moore points out that over the last 30 years the US has experienced far more innovation than China. No doubt this is true. But consider the trajectories.

Twenty years ago, China had no credible research community. It had some excellent undergraduate education, and we Americans were the beneficiaries of those smart, well-trained students; indeed, much of our innovation has been due to Chinese engineers. The situation is now radically different. China still provides strong undergraduate education, but how many talented Chinese either stay home and study at their now excellent research universities, or go home after studying here in the US?

We could at least make Chinese feel welcome here. But no, major US universities apply racial polices to limit the number of American students of Chinese descent. Many have hiring practices that racially and sexually discriminate against male Chinese engineers. Would it not be prudent for a brilliant young Chinese engineering student at Tsinghua University to think twice about moving to a country where his race and sex will be held against him? Why not pursue world-class research at Tsinghua? At least he will be assured that being Chinese will not be an obstacle for him or his future children.

Who will replace the Chinese who would have been here but are now staying in China? Surely not the products of our lamentable education system! Perhaps Iranians; after all, there are many outstanding Iranian students who have the benefit of an excellent education in Iranian universities and choose to live outside of Iran. Unfortunately, our government creates obstacles to the funding of Iranian students, as well as to job openings for Iranians who earn their PhD degrees here. Apparently our bureaucrats would rather see them in Europe or Asia.

Stephen Moore makes a fundamental error: He believes American dominance in engineering results from free enterprise and consumer demand. He expresses an ideology, not an empirical principle based on historical observation.

Big problems are often addressed because it is in the national interest to do so. Consumers do not demand better gyroscopes for missile guidance, or the application of control theory in drug development. These are demanded by knowledgeable people acting with government backing. Their success depends on the demand, not an intention, to meet expectations. It matters not a whit as to the form of government, authoritarian or democratic, so long as the demand is made, reward depends on success, and failure is not tolerated.

It would be foolhardy in the extreme to believe that a totalitarian system cannot defeat a democratic system in this game. If you don’t believe me, ask Plato.

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Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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