It’s a Gas – It Happened Today, January 29, 2017

On this date in history in 1886 one Karl Benz became a hero of entrepreneurship and then, I suppose, a massive ecological villain when he patented a gasoline-powered car. People like me have long praised the automobile as a classic private solution to a pressing public problem, the increasingly intolerable fouling of cities and destruction of forests by… the horse.

I know, it sounds a bit silly. But major cities were being buried in horse poop, drowned in horse pee, and afflicted with tens of thousands of dead horses a year. And more and more forest land was being cleared for pastures to grow the hay all these creatures consumed.

If government had taken charge of the problem, there is no telling what disaster would have ensued. Instead entrepreneurs created a new form of transportation, less picturesque in ways that make me genuinely sad but enormously more efficient and effective. You could not have cottages for the middle class if we all had to take horse carts to them, nor supermarkets or indeed almost any facet of modern life. You could also not have carts that play what was once quaintly called "high fidelity" music, heat your seat and protect you from the elements while a gentle push of your foot accelerates you to 100 km/h. And now that we have seen modernity in all its horror, maybe future waves of technology can allow us to decentralize, slow down, and get back in touch with nature external and internal while retaining some of the gains like, say, laptops that can edit video. Just to pick an example at random.

Of course today the reaction is likely to be that by inventing the gas-powered car Benz (yes, of Mercedes-Benz) played a major role in dooming the planet and its inhabitants to climate change that will drown, fry or otherwise exterminate us all. But even if one grants that he’s about as much of a benefactor to humanity as, say, Sauron, surely we can at least draw the lesson that if we want alternatives to current technology including fossil-fuel-dependent vehicles and power plants, we are far likely to get dynamic, unpredictable, astoundingly effective solutions from the private sector than from central planning.

In turn they may raise new dilemmas over time to replace the ones they solve. But it sure beats government intervention, which reliably creates new messes without fixing the old ones.