TCS Daily

The Libertarian Paradox: Freedom in This World -- and on Other Worlds

By James Pinkerton - October 30, 2000 12:00 AM

Cyberspace or outer space? Or both? Those questions aren't being asked in this presidential election. But they should be, especially by Why? Because while technolibertarians have concentrated on advancing, or at least defending, the political and economic gains they have made in the past 20 years, the real-time real world is still becoming an increasingly crowded and dangerous place, as bigger government and bigger weapons threaten a static planet. Moreover, painful as it may be for a libertarian to say, there`s not only a "role" for government in space; there`s a vital need for the feds to blaze the trail.

Libertarians have always been of two minds about the space program. In one lobe, they believe that outward-bound exploration is part of theirsuper-achieving Ayn-Randian destiny; Charles Murray, for example, took time out from bell-curving and government-bashing to write a sympathetic account of the Apollo astronauts. But in their other lobe, limited-governmenteers see NASA is just another wasteful bastion of bureaucracy, nestled in the even bigger governmental bosom of the military-industrial complex. The Cato Institute, for example, in its Handbook for the 106th Congress, recommends chopping $2.8 billion, or 20 percent, from NASA's budget, including zeroing out the International Space Station.

Purists would say, of course, that if space is worth going to, then private enterprise will get us there. But it hasn't happened yet. Even prizes aimed at jump-starting capitalistic calculation have not done the job. Three years ago, libertarian space visionary Walt Anderson put up a $250,000 cash award -- the Cheap Access to Space Prize -- to the first rocket-preneur who could launch a two-kilogram payload to an altitude of 200 kilometers. That doesn't sound that hard, does it? Yet not a single claimant has fired a single rocket. Meanwhile, the $10 million X-Prize, offered by a group of forward-looking businessmen in St. Louis seeking to replicate the incentives that sent Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic, is available to the first team that develops and flies a spaceship capable of launching three passengers to an altitude of 60 miles on two consecutive flights within a two-week time period. No takers for that, either.

By contrast, Uncle Sam, having landed men on the moon and rovers on Mars, has just finished its 100th successful shuttle mission; tomorrow, a Soyuz rocket is scheduled to launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome. It will take three astronauts -- two Russians and an American -- to live for a month on board the International Space Station; when finished in 2006, the ISS will be the size of a skyscraper.

Doctrinaire libertarians might not like to admit it, but private enterprise, in the near future, is unlikely to see space as profitable for anything more ambitious than communications satellites. Efforts at space tourism or adventure, as in "Destination Mir," the proposed reality TV show from producer Mark "Survivor" Burnett, can't really be considered independently entrepreneurial, since they will all rely on government-made rockets and infrastructure.

Some happy day hence, the bottom-line principles of Milton Friedman and the high-flying spirit of Robert Heinlein, libertarians both, will be joined in space. But the challenge for humans isn't just getting to that point, it's surviving to that point. In an environment of post-Soviet loose nukes and chemical and biological weapons that can be made in basements and let loose by individuals -- not to mention such long-shots as asteroidal "deep impact" and ecological collapse -- "Spaceship Earth" is starting to feel rickety.

So of the two presidential candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, who offers a better space platform? The truth is that there's not much difference. Neither man has said much on the issue, neither man is likely to change current policy significantly. So while there`s no chance of swaying the voting intentions of TechCentralStation.commers, who are currently "e-nnihilating" Gore in the TCS Presidential Straw Poll, the techopolitically minded might see that the time has come to use a small piece of big government to create a whole lot of small government -- if not here on earth, then somewhere else. Because history shows that some of the greatest breakthroughs for libertarianism were achieved as an unintended consequence of government activity.

Consider the expansion of the United States across the North American continent. In the 19th century, the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis & Clark expedition, and the transcontinental railroad were all "big government" projects, and yet together they guaranteed that the American government would control the continental US. The West was a vacuum in the 1800s; something was going to fill it with statism.

Would the West be freer today if isolationist dogma had prevailed in the 1840s and the area were still controlled by Mexico? Or perhaps a slave-owning Texas Republic? Or if it had been colonized by the British coming down from Canada? Or the Japanese coming from across the Pacific?

Or, to take a more recent and metaphorical example, consider the crown jewel of contemporary libertarianism: the Internet. Gore didn't invent it, but the government did create it. Happily, it was turned over to invisible hands, where it vindicates Adam Smith every day. Is it such a bad idea to think of other venues, such as space, in which tax money can be used, ironically, to foster tax freedom?

Of course, it can be argued that the rolling electronics revolution of the past three decades has drained the energy out of the space movement; the nerdy Homer ("October Sky") Hickam types who once built model rockets in hopes of working with Wernher von Braun in Huntsville now build websites in hopes of working with Bill Gross at Pasadena. But neat as the Net may be, until such time as we can download ourselves into the metaverse, a la "The Matrix," we still have to worry about our real-time, real-world environment. And that means finding new frontiers of freedom against not only terroristic weapons of mass destruction, but also the terrors of overweening government.

As the earth gets smaller, more dangerous, and more regulated, libertarians will relearn a basic lesson: the ultimate guarantee of personal autonomy is physical mobility -- the freedom to go to the New World, to the Northwest Territory, to the suburbs and yes, to an even Newer World.

If Gore wins the election, libertarians should hold him to the pro-space commitments that he has made on space -- including continuing with the International Space Station and extending exploration to Mars -- confident that, in this instance at least, big government could yet bring bigger freedom someday, somewhere. If Bush wins, his far-seeing supporters should persuade him that space offers a new venue for his semi-libertarian vision.

But no matter who prevails, freedom-lovers face a paradox: it will take non-libertarian means to achieve libertarian ends. ____________

James P. Pinkerton, former White House aide to Presidents Reagan and Bush, is an adjunct fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.

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