AnarchyNetStephen Davies points to an interesting article in the Economist on the younger generation’s move away from both left and right: "The strange rebirth of liberal England"

(As the piece makes clear, they’re using "liberal" in its classical, more libertarian sense: "In the United States our creed is so misunderstood that people associate liberalism with big government, when it advocates the opposite.")

It’s a very encouraging article, and I hope what it says is true, but a minor point caught my eye:

There are several explanations for this commendable fashion. During their formative years they were exposed to the internet — an organ with an inbuilt resistance to government meddling. [emphasis added]

In my blog post "Should we thank the State for the Internet?" I mentioned that

Pro-regulators and advocates of market intervention like to cite the Internet as an example of an infrastructure that required massive central funding and government planning — something the free market couldn’t have produced.

Here’s President Obama taking the position I described:

The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.

(Obama made that claim in the same infamous speech in which he pronounced, "If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.")

In "Who Really Invented the Internet?" former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz declares it "an urban legend that the government launched the Internet." (But this piece from Ars Technica seems to debunk the debunking.)

Blogger Brian Carnell, whom Crovitz quotes approvingly in his WSJ editorial, acknowledges the military source of the Internet’s creation, but he’s not exactly giving the state "credit" for their role:

Prior to the early 1990s almost nobody outside of governments and universities had home access to the Internet while several million had logged on to a BBS at one point or another. What caused the change? Something [left-liberals] usually fight tooth and nail — privatization. The floodgates of the Internet came open only after key resources became privatized and companies and individuals could operate on the Internet. For much of its existence, commercial activity on the Internet had been forbidden. The removal of that barrier is primarily responsible for the Internet we have today, where both anarchists and Abercrombie and Fitch use the web to broadcast their respective messages. [link added]

Here’s the part Crovitz quoted:

The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished with almost no added benefit other than to the military and academia. In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.

I know libertarians more Internet savvy than I am who remain divided on the question of the Internet’s origins. We all seem to agree on the emphasis I tried to give in my post about the critical role of counterfactuals in any causal claims. Carnell makes the point well: statists, he says, "must demonstrate that without the government, innovations such as the Internet wouldn’t exist.”

But I still think the factual historical question is important: where did the Internet come from?

Clearly the American government played an important role, but how much?

How much of a role was played by the private sector before privatization of the network itself?

I expect we’ll be seeing historians, technologists, and libertarians weigh in on this question in the near future.

Here’s a puzzle piece I’d like to see included: when the Economist magazine calls the Internet "an organ with an inbuilt resistance to government meddling," it’s referring to the decentralized structure of the network. Economist Peter Klein, in his Mises Daily "Government Did Invent the Internet, But the Market Made It Glorious," tells why a central political power would want to build a radically decentralized network:

During the 1960s, the RAND Corporation had begun to think about how to design a military communications network that would be invulnerable to a nuclear attack. Paul Baran, a RAND researcher whose work was financed by the Air Force, produced a classified report in 1964 proposing a radical solution to this communication problem. Baran envisioned a decentralized network of different types of "host" computers, without any central switchboard, designed to operate even if parts of it were destroyed. The network would consist of several "nodes," each equal in authority, each capable of sending and receiving pieces of data.

Klein adds, parenthetically, that "former ARPA head Charles Herzfeld says that distributing computing power over a network, rather than creating a secure military command-and-control system, was the ARPANET‘s original goal, though this is a minority view" (links added).

The Cold War scenario is one I’m fond of for its irony, and it makes sense to me.

If it’s not true, then where did the Internet get its anarchic architecture?


One Response to anarchonet

  1. Tim Swanson says:

    Just read your post. Again, the way I look at it is this: post-WWII many Silicon Valley firms, institutions, universities, etc. received lots of research grants from the DoD (for stuff like SIGINT). I’m not saying this necessarily laid the ground work for it, but since so many firms were spun off subsidiaries that were financed by the government, guys like ArsTechnica will continue to (correctly) claim this technicality, that if you follow the initial seed money in SV, a large amount of it came through the DoD. It just so happened that there was a synergy of sorts that enabled the innovation cycle to continue as the modern VC industry began. Also, there throughout the ’70s and ’80s as the VC innovation cycle was germinating, the Free/OSS movement began. See BSD for example, all voluntary, nearly all privately run (although the NSA and other DoD departments have donated code in the past).

    I interviewed Mark Thornton for my book a few months back specifically on this issue. Here are his thoughts in Chapter 20 (

    In November 2012 I spoke with Mark Thornton, an economist at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and an expert in the boom-bust investment cycle.28 According to him, “Research parks are all about inventing technology for commercial and other purposes. Generally we are speaking of higher order goods, the types of goods associated with the boom phase of the business cycle. Therefore we would expect that research park projects tend to be established during booms when profits are high, the cost of capital is low, and where retained earnings are more than sufficient to support additional projects. If research parks are established at or near the peak in the business cycle then it would be wise to avoid contracting with research parks that have few tenants. Traditionally one of the main benefits of research parks is synergy. If your research park has no tenants then you do not have the type of synergies that successful research parks generate. New companies, new technologies and products, as well as successful research parks (e.g. Stanford Research Park and Research Triangle Park) tend to get their starts during bad economic times. During recessions land, labor, capital are cheaper and budding entrepreneurs are more abundant.” In economic terms, higher order goods are goods used to produce consumer goods (e.g., those which require a long-term investment such as building a factory which in turn creates consumer goods).29

    Similarly, many of these research parks and endeavors – not just in China – arguably exhibit patterns of modern-day cargo cultism. Thornton noted that, “The next Silicon Valley will not look like Silicon Valley. It will have some new features and not have all the same features as Silicon Valley. You cannot just build “it” and expect them to come. Silicon Valley is more than just Stanford Research Park and Stanford University. There are tangible and intangible factors that matter. They include things like the weather, demographics, culture, and relatively limited regulatory impact from the government. Even some factors we just do not know. Government can subsidize research parks but it takes a free market and entrepreneurs to actually weave the fibers of something extremely complex like Silicon Valley.”

    In fact, in the US, nearly every state has erected several tech parks with the hopes of “creating” another Silicon Valley; there are dozens of research and technology centers across the country. This raises the question: if you build it, will they (the creative classes) come?

    [28] Skyscrapers and Business Cycles by Mark Thornton [↩]
    [29] See Chapter 1 in Principles of Economics by Carl Menger and Chapter 16 in Human Action by Ludwig von Mises [↩]

    Again, in my mind this is merely a Bastiatian moment of seen and unseen. If the government hadn’t been involved at UC Berkeley, Standord, at Livermore, etc. would the private industry eventually made the same innovations and inventions that would later create the foundation and infrastructure for the internet. I say yes because there is nothing fundamentally unique about this experiment/project/phenomenon that is outside the laws of economics. Furthermore, the wikipedia entry on the History of SV is quite weak, it doesn’t really detail the various defense contractors that were created to do research and development for electronic warfare (jamming, phantom projection, etc.). A lot of that stuff is still hush-hush.

    Below are are a couple footnotes you may find of interest in an older Mises piece of mine (

    [1] The research and development efforts at Stanford Research Institute and Xerox PARC should not be understated. While SRI originally operated in part through government financed grants, due to anti-war sentiments throughout its organization and on campus, it later became a non-profit organization divorced from DARPA funding. The totality of PARC was funded privately. In addition, it was through the private commercial efforts of Apple to incorporate many of these ideas into practical everyday computing applications (e.g. Ethernet and the GUI). See also the “Mother of All Demos” as well as this vintage technical documentary covering the original ARPANET design methodology circa 1972 (

    [4] While some urban legends claim the original purpose for ARPANET was to allow institutions to communicate with one another in the event of disastrous war, this is a myth. Charles Herzfeld, who was director of ARPA at the time, has noted that it was designed to effectively and efficiently manage and utilize relatively scarce computing resources across the country (

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