Microseconds and Macropolicy

Wriston, Walter B.


Revolution and Reaction


Each new age of technology has affected old power structures and changed the political landscape. When a man's wealth was expressed by the amount of land he owned, the sovereign, no matter how bad his economic or political policies, did not have to worry about the flight of capital. You literally could not move the farm. Then the invention of money and the development of industrial and service economies made capital mobile. And the invention of the railroad profoundly changed our society because, among other things, for the first time it gave real mobility to labor. Men and women could escape a harsh working environment for a better one. As goods and people moved across the land toward better opportunities and new markets, the railroad track became the iron strap that bound whole continents together.

Following close on the heels of the railway came a second revolutionary technology, the automobile, which once again dramatically changed the way we live and work. In 1947, William Harlan Hale wrote a layman's history of the United States that illuminated the automobile's role in transforming society in a manner few history books do:

The car made for private freedom, and especially for the kind of freedom which the arbiters of taste and enjoyment in the big cities were not promoting.... It was a declaration of independence against every form of rigid and ancestral control: against the inflexible railroad, against the self-enclosed little community, against the paternalistic family, and against all the inbred customs that had survived from a slow-moving earlier day into the age of speed and power.

Unsurprisingly, every great technological revolution in history has made the ruling classes nervous, because they sensed--correctly --that somehow their power was being undermined. Sovereigns reacted to the new mobility of capital by inventing exchange controls. The railroads were locked into the grip of government regulation until their number and power dwindled as their monopoly eroded through the competition of trucks, barges, and airplanes. While governments regulated transportation, most if not all of them created a monopoly on the delivery of letters. Some say the Stuart kings created the government postal monopoly in order to censor the mail of dissidents.

As new means of communication came along, governments reacted with caution. The Royal Post of England took over the telephone from private hands and slowed its development down to a walk. In 1879, Sir William Preece, the chief engineer of the British Post Office, testified in the House of Commons that the telephone had little future in Britain. "There are conditions in America which necessitate the use of such instruments more than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers.... The absence of servants has compelled the Americans to adopt communications systems." America was lucky: although we set up a government postal monopoly, we did not let it take over our telephone service.

  • This document was created from the article, "Microseconds and Macropolicy" by Walter B. Wriston for the March/April 1985 edition of "Regulation: AEI [American Enterprise Institute] Journal on Government and Society." The original article is located in MS134.003.026.00019.
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