About forty five years ago, a new fashion swept through the think tanks, newspapers and political parties of the west, particularly in the UK and US. The State, they said was out of date and oppressive. It was full of fuddy- duddy old civil servants, with rules and restrictions. It was slow and sclerotic, and the taxes which paid for it could be better spent on things like imported cars and mistresses. Wealth and progress would come from the dynamic private sector, where strong buccaneering entrepreneurs (they were always men) would tear up the Red Tape and Get Things Done.
Around this time some Forensic Scientists in a Police Laboratory had a problem. Was there a way of visualising the invisible impressions of writing caused by a pen in the sheets of paper which are underneath the one that the pen is leaving its ink upon? That could provide them with very important evidence indeed. The only way to do that back in 1978 was to shine a light on the pages and hope for the best.
So they approached a couple of college lecturers called Doug Foster and Bob Freeman, who were experimenting with electrostatics. They created a device called the Electrostatic Detection Apparatus (ESDA) It was a box which sucked the document you wanted to examine flat. The operator covered it with a simple clear film, then applied and electrostatic charge. The next stage was to apply a simple black powder, which visualised the invisible writings, which could then be photographed or preserved. The technique had no effect on the document. Note- “interference free evidence” is the Forensic Scientist’s dream. It could be repeated again and again. It fitted well with other departments like drugs or biology, provided you arranged that the documents people got the thing first. It led to thousands of successful convictions, and excellent intelligence operations.
The demand for the ESDA from science labs, police forces and government agencies became immense. On the back of that Foster and Freeman set up a small factory to commence the commercial manufacture of their ESDA. Their links with Forensic Scientists led them to realise that there was a need for other devices, for example that could analyse the pigments in inks, in fingerprint technologies, and many other crime-related fields. Soon they were growing and taking on employees, and moving to bigger premises. Now they have a major business exporting around the world.
So where did the State end and the private sector begin? Whisper this as a heresy, but we think that they both played a role. The intellectual excellence and detached curiosity of the state scientists provided a seed bed of ideas and a place to test and perfect without the grinding macho pressures of the market. There is no doubt that the entrepreneurial spirit of Messrs Foster and Freeman researched developed and grew things in a way no civil service could ever achieve. Above all a well financed state sector provides a stable predictable market into which budding new enterprises can sell with a certain degree of confidence. The reason that the pharmaceutical industry is strong in the UK is because of the NHS. The reason the Americans had such a strong aerospace sector was the enormous budgets of the Department of Defense. When you can rely on a stable market, you can predict your sales, borrowings and production runs. From there, you move out into the marginal markets. The history of pulling back the State and letting the Private Sector rip has had some deadly failures; witness the failure to develop new antibiotics.
This is not to say that the state should be underpinning every private sector company. We doubt that hybrid public private partnership enterprises will be particularly successful . And there are many factors which influence industrial success- banking structures, education, labour laws for example. But one of them is a thriving public sector, particularly in areas like Law Enforcement, Heath and Defence, as a guaranteed market of resort. The old mantra of “Public Sector Bad- Private Sector Good” is as out of date now as its Communist antithesis was in 1989.
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