Monday, January 31, 2005

Pernicious Myths

As mentioned before, I am a space nerd. One of the most disheartening things about the early 21st century, to me, is not that I don't live on Mars, but that I don't even have the option.

However, in certain segments of the space-advocacy community, you'll here a common refrain - "the Government doesn't want cheap access to space. They're standing in the way to help [insert ominous conspiracy group here]. If the government got out of the way, we'd already have space colonies, etc."

Now, there might be some truth to this - I don't sit in on the meetings of the Trilateral Commission. However, I'd like to address the second part of the statement - that government should "get out of the way". It's a common refrain, and not just in space advocacy. Ever since Thatcher and Reagan, we've heard to varying degrees and with varying enthusiasms that government isn't the solution, it's the problem. This view seems to be largely informed by the myth of the hard working pioneer who cleared his own farm, and didn't need no daggum guvmint to take his money.

Unfortunately, some history shows us that this simply is not the case. First off, in the case of the Americas and Australia, that farm land was confiscated by the militaries of the United States and Canada, who evicted or killed the previous tenants - or landlords, more properly. This is pretty obviously a case of the state interfering in the market - what would the chances of colonization been if every acre had to be bought by the settlers from the natives? Not much. So the government comes in and interferes with a market solution to impose its own, top-down inefficient solutions on the working man - and just happens to commit genocide and steal a continent.

Once it had this land, the government tried to act like a business, selling it for revenue (the US army was basically a real estate corporation for most of the early 1800s. The 1860s were a different story - call it a new market competitor.) Of course, as we all know government can't operate like a business, so the US gave up the real estate racket and passed the Homestead Act, which more than any other piece of legislation is responsible for the settling of the American frontier. But don't let that fool you - Dick Cheney says that government can't create prosperity! Judging by the past four years, he's probably right. And look, he'll be able to prove it for the next four years, too! The system works!

More seriously, this myth is seriously stupid for the space community to have. Leave aside the notion of a privately-built, Saturn 5-scale rocket launch (NASA's not great, but would you trust a rocket built by Microsoft? The "Blue Screen of Death" takes on a totally different meaning"), and leaving aside the idea that a major corporation would be willing to invest billions in such a risky investment as space settlement, no expansion of the frontier has ever come without major government involvement, whether Spanish, Dutch, British or the Americans. Trying to keep the government out of space policy would be like Columbus saying "if only the kings of Europe would get out of the way, I could show them the route to China." Of course, seeing as the kings owned all the boats, this was a self-defeating strategy.

On the other hand, there are some positive ideas for what the US might do to stimulate private investment in lunar and other off-world properties. You can find some good ideas here.

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