NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Success Of Privately Funded Arctic Exploration

June 4, 2001

In the nineteenth century, private expeditions to the Arctic region achieved more success with fewer resources and fewer casualties than public expeditions, exemplifying the superiority of the private sector, say economists.

Based on an in-depth analysis of 92 expeditions between 1818 and 1909, researchers compared the success of private and publicly funded exploration using several measures.

  • On public expeditions 9 percent of the crew died as compared to only 6 percent of private expeditions.
  • The average public expedition lost ships weighing a total of 200 tons, compared to an average 60 ton-loss for private expeditions.
  • Public expeditions had a 47 percent rate of advanced scurvy, while private expeditions had only a 13 percent rate.

With lower casualty rates, private explorations achieved more than public explorations.

  • Private expeditions captured most of the major Arctic prizes, including the first claim to the North Pole and the first navigation of the Northwest Passage.
  • Five of the 56 private expeditions made a major discovery, but only one out of the 35 public ones did.
  • Of the minor discoveries, the public and private explorations performed equally.

Yet, public explorations had better funding and were much larger. The average public expedition deployed 70 crewmen, whereas the average private expedition deployed only 16. Public explorations took 1.6 ships weighing 596 tons, while private explorations had 1.2 ships weighing 277 vessel tons. Thus, despite superior resources, public explorers fared far worse than private ones.

The researchers conclude the private expeditions were roughly five times more efficient. This suggests that if both the private and public sector can accomplish a task, the private sector can perform the task at a cheaper cost.

Source: "Lessons from the Arctic," Economic Intuition, Winter 2001; based on Jonathan M. Karpoff, "Public versus Private Initiative in Arctic Exploration: The Effects of Incentives and Organizational Structure," Journal of Political Economy, February 2001.


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