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Why No Ocean Program?

Mises Daily: Monday, February 03, 2003 by

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Though the politicians rush to reward NASA with hundreds of millions of dollars for its Columbia shuttle disaster, average citizens are right to give some critical thought to the space program.

One question has always puzzled me, which is partly responsible for my having edited a book, Liberty and R&D (Hoover Institution Press, 2001): namely, how does the public sector decide that it is a good idea to explore space instead of spending the time, resources, and talent on other scientific explorations or, for that matter, some other area like building a road?

For example, it has always seemed to me to be a good idea to research the possibility of humans living not in space but in the oceans. Yes, space has this reputation for being unlimited, but only in the sense that there is a lot of it out there. But this is misleading because very little of it is readily available for human habitation. There is a great deal more useable space available in the much-more-accessible oceans here on earth.  It is close by, and doesn't seem to be so risky once the details are worked out. The prospect of living there could rebuff a lot of the environmental blather. 

Yet, I rarely see any TV programs or magazines articles about any Ocean Projects.  Maybe I am not looking in the right places, but I am a longtime subscriber to Science News, which supposedly keeps up with the entire array of scientific work. I've never seen an article on such research. Current projects in oceanography (including those funded by Nasa) appear to focus on very minimal goals, such as the understanding of plant and animal life, the possibility of growing food, and so on, but not on the much more ambitious goal of locating people there for routine living. It also seems like the idea may have appeal!

But there is a fundamental problem with all speculation such as this. My own idea of what ought to be publicly funded is completely beside the point—as is everyone else's, actually. None of us can tell what should be so funded, because the funding comes from us all and we have very different resources, very different hopes, circumstances, needs, aspirations and imaginations. 

The trouble lies with the very idea of public funding of science. The public isn't some person, not even a company or family or club. The public is all of the citizens of the country. And as citizens, we share only a few common concerns, the most important of which is the protection of basic rights.  That is why the Declaration of Independence, where America's political philosophy is sketched, lists our basic rights and the government's task to secure them as the linchpin of America's public policy: 

Apart from military and crime control related research, the government really hasn't any rational way to embark on science in a free society. But because it tries to do so anyway, its decisions will necessarily be wrong—wrong in the sense that it does not meet the most urgent needs of the public. These programs will not represent all the people's priorities; they will often be inept because of this; they will be in constant dispute or looked at with much apathy, out of which neglect and even lack of safety can arise, a lack over and above the normal risks involved in all scientific exploration.

Yes, in my view exploring the oceans would be much better than exploring space, but I do not believe that ocean living is for everyone. But since public policy involves everyone, we are stuck with this dilemma: do it, and do it badly, or do not do it at all, which is unacceptable nowadays.

Has NASA been successful? In the end, is it possible even to say what amounts to a successful space program? The space program is a goal that clearly not all of us share. This is the case with so much else that government does, be it what roads to build, what kind of educational programs to support, what kind of environmental program to carry out, or the work of which artists to fund. There is no likely solution to the problem of allocating money in a way that will please all the people anytime soon. 

The main economic purpose of a market economy is to insure that resources are put to their most valued uses, in a manner which economizes on costs and meets the priorities of the public, as expressed through their buying and selling decisions. In trade and exchange, within the framework of property ownership, goods and services are priced according to demand and availability, which in turn allows for the calculation of profit and loss.

It is these very profit-loss signals that yield information about what projects individuals consider worthwhile (profitable) and those that they do not (leading to losses). But the public sector is managed by boards and bureaucrats with nothing to go on but subjective impression and decree, unconnected from any preferences expressed in the real world.

Despite all the hectoring we hear about the glorious merit of the space program and all that it has produced, there is actually no way to tell what, if anything, this program has done for society. The program is forced upon us through taxation and legislative decree. It is not tested by the marketplace. We could say the same about an Ocean Project funded and carried out by similar means.

In the public sector, how can we know whether these bureaus are doing things they should or should not do, given the priorities of the buying public? The matter is simply unsolvable. All we can know is that people are being forced to pay for certain services against their will—which is true whether government is supporting a space program or an ocean program or any other program. The system of public finance that underwrites these programs is inherently flawed.


Tibor Machan, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. You may send him MAIL and view his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive