Submitted by James E Miller of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute of Canada,
Leading neoconservative (read “closet Trotskyite“) commentator Charles Krauthammer’s latest Washington Post editorial pays homage to the glory days of NASA and the retirement of the space shuttle Discovery. Titled “Farewell, the New Frontier,” the piece evokes mental images of Uncle Sam losing his international prestige as President Obama scales down NASA’s space exploration endeavors. Much like his incessant urging for war with any nation predominantly inhabited by Muslims, hypocrisy runs high from a pundit who has made a career out of denouncing big government. But then again the infatuation conservatives have with imposing democracy abroad through military occupation and financing brutal dictators has always made the National Review and Weekly Standard crowd look like laughing stocks to anyone with a slight concern for logical consistency.
Neoconservatives like Krauthammer often gain readership by peddling “American exceptionalism” to simpletons who take comfort in their country succeeding while, in fact, it is the war contractors and corporate bed partners of Washington who benefit from the governance of those who preach the doctrine of “limited government.” Of course the left, who literally run their campaigns on promising to pilfer more wealth and create a constituency of obedient dependents, is equally guilty of attracting the various bedfellows of crony capitalism. But at least their admiration for centralized planning and tightening the leash on civil society is openly professed.
For decades, the conservative movement has been an embarrassment to those who believe in true free markets, peace, and liberty. Krauthammer’s pity party over NASA is more of the same as it represents the type of economic ignorance and worship of big government that has become a predominant feature of the mainstream “right.” He writes:
As the space shuttle Discovery flew three times around Washington, a final salute before landing at Dulles airport for retirement in a museum, thousands on the ground gazed upward with marvel and pride. Yet what they were witnessing, for all its elegance, was a funeral march.
Who cares, you say? What is national greatness, scientific prestige or inspiring the young — legacies of NASA — when we are in economic distress? Okay. But if we’re talking jobs and growth, science and technology, R&D and innovation — what President Obama insists are the keys to “an economy built to last” — why on earth cancel an incomparably sophisticated, uniquely American technological enterprise?
For a man who hilariously chided President Obama’s blind commitment to throwing away more and more taxpayer dollars at politically favored firms under the guise of a six-year “stimulus” plan by declaring “even Lenin had the modesty to stop at five,” Krauthammer still operates under the assumption that perhaps a few of the various arms of federal bureaucracy are capable of generating wealth. According to him, the staff at NASA is on the forefront of developing technological innovations:
We lament the decline of American manufacturing, yet we stop production of the most complex machine ever made by man — and cancel the successor meant to return us to orbit. The result? Abolition of thousands of the most highly advanced aerospace jobs anywhere — its workforce abruptly unemployed and drifting away from space flight, never to be reconstituted.
Judging by the above passage, Mr. Krauthammer has difficulty distinguishing between jobs which produce wealth and those that are utterly wasteful. In order for a job to be productive, it must garner some type of return on investment. Whether its the lawyer opening up a law practice or the hamburger flipper at McDonald’s, the outcome of profit and losses determines the success of each. The market process of monetary calculation allows for the efficient distribution of resources. Where profit, that is the money earned after paying for wages, land rent, interest, and other inputs, fails to materialize, then resources have been wasted as consumers send a proverbial referendum of dissatisfaction to producers by voting with their wallets.
The state, by nature of acquiring its funds through theft, does not have the same concern for profits and loss. This renders those who carry out its operations incapable of economic calculation. In the words of Ludwig von Mises:
There is no possible way of establishing by an objective criterion whether a district or a province is being administered well or badly, cheaply or expensively. The judgment of the activity of public officials is thus a matter of subjective, and therefore quite arbitrary, opinion. Even the question whether a particular bureau is necessary, whether it has too many or too few employees, and whether its organization is or is not suited to its purpose can be decided only on the basis of considerations that involve some element of subjectivity.
Rather than facilitate advances in technology and promote space travel, NASA has only inhibited such in being a functioning apparatus of the government. The state only ever acquires those resources forcefully taken from the private sector. The labor and industrial technology employed by NASA since its inception has been forever designated to and wasted by a political bureaucracy incapable of legitimately garnishing a real profit. Without profit and loss, the effective use of resources is impossible to determine.
Krauthammer goes on to question the private sector’s viability in achieving profitable manned-space flight.
Nor for the private sector to get us back into orbit, as Obama assumes it will. True, hauling MREs up and trash back down could be done by private vehicles. But manned flight is infinitely more complex and risky, requiring massive redundancy and inevitably larger expenditures. Can private entities really handle that? And within the next lost decade or two?
The question isn’t whether the private sector can handle such a task. It’s what policies does the government actively promote, from taxation to currency debasement, which prevent the capital accumulation necessary to fund such a costly endeavor. With less resources being squandered away by NASA’s bureaucracy, that means more left in the hands in entrepreneurs who “might have a chance to actually prosper down the road” and “carry the water instead of drink the water,” to borrow a phrase from Rick Santelli. If space travel can’t be funded by entrepreneurs and investors looking to buy low and sell high, than it ends up being another avenue in which to destroy wealth. Government is and will always be incapable of allocating resources effectively. The political time horizon only runs as far as the next election. The return on investment for any politicians means convincing enough saps to check the ballot box next to their name. It has nothing to do with economization and all to do with paying off campaign supporters. NASA’s various attempts at space travel are bridge to nowhere projects like every other government boondoggle.
And as this exhaustive report conducted by Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason Magazine shows, space exploration is being pursued by a number of private individuals and companies. These “Rocket Men” are interested in offering a service at a profit and not appeasing their political benefactors. Their success will be dependent solely on whether the methods and technology they utilize actually enrich the lives of others. It won’t aid in the advancement of the static bureaucracy known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Mises pinned down the fundamental predicament massive bureaucracies like NASA long ago:
Thus, the characteristic mark of bureaucratic management is that it lacks the guidance provided by considerations of profit and loss in judging the success of its operations in relation to the expenses incurred and is consequently obliged, in the effort to compensate for this deficiency, to resort to the entirely inadequate expedient of making its conduct of affairs and the hiring of its personnel subject to a set of formal prescriptions. All the evils that are commonly imputed to bureaucratic management — its inflexibility, its lack of resourcefulness, and its helplessness in the face of problems that are easily solved in profit-seeking enterprise — are the result of this one fundamental deficiency.
Contrary to Krauthammer, NASA has never represented America’s collective vision of frontier exploration. It has been just another bureaucratic black hole for Washington to throw dollars at in hopes of buying reelection. As investor and avowed anarchist Doug Casey thoughtfully observes on the inefficiency of NASA:
We should have colonies on the moon by now, and more: We should be mining the asteroids and developing real estate on Mars. There should be active homesteading going on out there right now. As you say, the technology for doing it is fairly mature – and would be far more so if the field had been left to the private sector, which always does things faster and more efficiently than the state.
Because one of the main tenets of economics is considering the unseen, then it can be assumed that space exploration would very well be advanced far beyond what we see today if it was left completely out of the hands of the state. If Krauthammer truly wished the human race capable of traveling into the new frontier of the stars, he would welcome NASA cuts rather than lament. I know I am.