Frédéric Bastiat and the Hubble Telescope
A few days ago my wife and I watched a fascinating program on PBS. The long running Nova series featured the history and accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope. The program was titled Invisible Universe Revealed. This episode was composed of three parts.
The first third of the program explained how the astronomers secured funding for the space telescope and successfully built and launched it. Senator William Proxmire, Democrat from Wisconsin, had the space telescope in his sights. From 1975 to 1988 the senator awarded his monthly Golden Fleece Award for egregiously wasteful spending. According to Nova, funding for Hubble was secured when Nancy Roman, Chief Astronomer-to-be, pointed out, apparently to the satisfaction of Congress, that for the cost of a night at the movies, every American would enjoy fifteen years of astronomical revelations. Hubble was launched by the Space Shuttle on April 24, 1990 and deployed a day later. That's when the real problems began.
The second part of the program was devoted to the thrilling repair conducted by astronauts on the orbiting telescope. Construction faults in the giant reflecting mirror made the telescope unusable. Incredibly these faults were not discovered until the telescope was in earth orbit. Nevertheless, the telescope was fixed, and this is the best part of the program. From diagnosing the problem, agreeing upon a feasible fix, to astronauts practicing the repair in a giant water tank (20 months of training!), and finally conducting the repair in space, the viewer is astonished at the knowledge, dedication, and skill of everyone associated with this NASA program.
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The third part of the program attempts to sell the results of the Hubble program to the viewers. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the program. The astronomers do their best to get the viewer excited about the things that they themselves feel are important, explaining difficult concepts in lay terms and showing beautiful pictures taken by Hubble. But for this viewer, it just didn't work. And here is where my economist side started thinking about Frédéric Bastiat's timeless essay "That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen."
The astronomers seem truly excited that now they can answer two questions that (they claim) have perplexed mankind from time immemorial; i.e., how old is the universe and how many stars are there.
The answer is 13.7 billion years. The number of stars is a so large that it's beyond human comprehension: 2 with twenty zeroes behind it, which is called 200 quintillion! There are 200 billion galaxies in the universe and each galaxy has 100 billion stars. (I must confess that these questions have not caused me to lose even one minute of sleep...ever.) Furthermore, the telescope has revealed many facets of the universe that are of great interest to astronomers. Did you know that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate; that there are black holes at the center of all galaxies, and that there is a previously unknown force, called dark energy, which makes up seventy percent of all the "stuff" in the universe? Me neither, but I must confess that, even after learning of my ignorance of these matters, I'm still not clear how my life has been made better. And this is where Bastiat comes in.
Even though the program honestly gives some air time to the skepticism the astronomers faced in order to secure funding, it makes no attempt to show that all that money and all that new knowledge has translated into even a smidgen of the improvement of mankind and how the project meets even the most expansive description of the proper role of government. Bastiat would point out that all that funding came at a cost, even if a relatively small per citizen cost, of real improvement in mankind's satisfaction. Each citizen did NOT have some higher satisfaction met, otherwise government funding would not have been necessary. That is, if countless Americans felt that they received benefit from space programs, Americans would agree to fund the programs voluntarily. Furthermore, the small-per-citizen cost argument used by Nancy Roman to justify the spending really doesn't stand up to serious analysis. If every American gave me just one cent each year, I could live very well and no one would be able to say honestly that his satisfaction was impaired even in the smallest way much less foregoing a night at the movies. You can see that almost any specious program can be justified by this type argument.
I dare say that a survey of most Americans would find that few know anything about the Hubble Space Telescope and its accomplishments to improve mankind's knowledge of the universe. In fact I question that the Hubble Space Telescope has done one positive thing for the improvement of mankind beyond the satisfaction felt by the very few in the astronomy field. Pure knowledge may be important in some way to those who seek it, but why force others to forego even the smallest satisfaction in order to provide it to an elite few?
So, should and would the Hubble have been built? This question cannot be answered unless individuals are allowed to fund it voluntarily and not have government coercively extract the funds from them through taxes. Perhaps some very wealthy individuals could have been convinced to fund the project. Maybe some sharp Madison Avenue marketers would have developed a program to raise the funds from a vast, interested citizenry. Furthermore, there is such a thing as pursuing an end before its time has come. Perhaps a Hubble-type telescope could have been placed in orbit a few years later at a greatly reduced cost, a cost that could have been borne by private donors. Who knows. But we do know that the Hubble Space Telescope has reduced the quality of our lives in a small way that can never be recovered. Personally, as much as I was impressed by the Hubble's accomplishments, I would have preferred a night at the movies.