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The sinking of private enterprise

Published on 16 April 2012
Updated on 06 December 2023

(oh no! not another take on the Titanic…)

I’ve become inured to all those stories about the Titanic this anniversary year has bestowed upon us. They are so predictable in their tropes: human ambition of conquering nature sinking with the unsinkable boat; hubris chastised; the class angle; gallantry in white tails – and of course, doomed love.


Why the excitement? It had all happened before. Xerxes flogging the sea for destroying the bridge across the Dardanelles; Philip II’s Invincible Armada; Napoleon’s wasting one million lives in Russia – without anesthetics; Balaclava. Why the fascination with the sinking of the Titanic? Was it not just another folly? And then it suddenly dawned on me: the sinking of the Titanic was the first iconic failure of private enterprise. The XIXth century had seen the emergence of private enterprise as the motor of economic development. The bourgeois state had created the proper legislative framework and secured property rights. Unrelenting progress ensued. Private initiative completed small and great projects at breathless pace; Suez Canal; railways and canals spanning the North American continent; the Eiffel Tower. The Panama Canal failure was a temporary setback – superior American management eventually carried the day. And then private enterprise was seen to founder – in icy waters off the American Coast. The tide was running against unfettered private enterprise by 1912. Teddy Roosevelt had spent eight years pitting virtuous big government against the greed of big business. And now the sinking of the Titanic, which was not so much human as engineering failure. Private enterprise could no longer be trusted even to do a proper engineering job. By default big government alone was left standing, to run both the economy and industry. The seed for planned industry, and much more, may have been sown then, I’d reckon. When pragmatism disappoints, idealism beckons. I’ve long been puzzled by how easily ordinary people streamed to national colors as WWI broke out, swept up in nationalism fervor by the words of (tinpot) poets, martial songs, and tawdry posters. Was it the implicit loss of faith in private enterprise and its ability to bring about both progress and justice that drove them in droves into the arms of the awaiting armies, only to be led to slaughter by admirals on dreadnoughts and generals dreaming of human waves hurling themselves against the enemy in collective act of supreme will? Mass heroism would carry the nation to victory – and eutopia… Is it true? Who knows? But at least it is a different angle. Taller than the Titanic’s crow’s nest this idle thought will sink faster into the sea of oblivion than the Titanic did to the bottom of the Ocean – but without loss of life or face. Pity this skipper…

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