Healthcare Hindenburg

Alan Farnham on the problem with the public option

Combatants on both sides of the health care debate should pause on October 4th to observe a relevant anniversary. They should turn their eyes eastward to a hill in France where, 79 years ago today, a fiery explosion killed 54. This disaster marked the end of one of the most dramatic head-to-head competitions between capitalism and socialism ever devised.

In the late 1920s, England saw the need to knit its far flung dominions to the mother country by air. Airplanes being, at that time, unreliable in performance and limited in range, it was decided to use dirigibles–ones bigger, stronger and more sophisticated than any that had gone before. To create them, the Labor government pit socialism and capitalism against one another, to see which could build the better blimp.

Two airships were ordered: one built by free enterprise; the other by the government’s own workshops. Both had to meet the same design criteria and performance standards; but how they achieved these was up to their respective designers. “Let the best man win,” was the attitude.

“There are still lessons to be learned from this peculiar experiment of government and private enterprise working in direct competition,” wrote novelist Nevil Shute Norway in his autobiography, Slide Rule (1954). Norway, before achieving fame as an author, had worked as an engineer on the private industry airship, designated R.100.

Where R100’s builders tried to show a profit, economizing wherever possible and adopting proven technology, the builders of the government airship, R101, labored under no such constraint. They had the treasury at their disposal, and so could give wing to their imaginations, indulging in all manner of experiments with methods and materials. One example: Though R100’s team had determined by calculation that their giant ship could be steered by the strength of but a single man turning a conventional wheel, R101’s team decided the job could be done only by a heavy and complex electric servo motor. Costs spiraled upward. Years ticked by.

By 1929, when R100 was ready to go, the government’s ship still languished in its shed, still under construction. R100 flew faster than its stipulated speed. It flew successfully from England to Canada and back, upping pressure on the government to show what its craft could do. Upon completion, R101 was slow and so heavy that it could barely lift its own weight. It was cut in half, and a new bay inserted to allow it to cary more lifting gas.

The story of what happened next with R101 is complicated; but most historians believe that political pressures were allowed to take precedence over engineers’ concerns and questions of safety.

On the night of October 3rd, R101 set off in bad weather on her maiden flight to India. She got no farther than France. At 2 a.m. on the morning of the 4th, the people of Beauvais were awakened by a gigantic fireball and explosion: the apocalyptic end to the government’s airship. It had lost altitude and collided with a hill. The last message received from her had said: “After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar, and, having sighted the French coast, have now gone to bed.”

Less distinguished than extinguished.

All but six aboard had died.

So undone were the English by this tragedy that R100—airworthy and blameless—was ordered scrapped, her dissected corpse rolled flat by a steam roller.

No doubt history can be combed to find occasions where government’s solution trumped a rival put forward by the private sector. But with R101’s burning wreck freshly in mind, I think I’ll pass on healthcare’s public option.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.