Saturday, December 06, 2003

Burning Money on Buck Rogers Fantasies

Matthew Yglesias makes a point that I've long held as self-evidently true: in a world in which the concept of opportunity costs continues to have meaning, it is simply unconscionable to think of wasting money on yet another government-sponsored project to visit the moon.

There is something about space travel that makes normally hard-headed libertarians go soft in the brain, as the typical response they provide to any practical objections one may raise is to churn out the same old discredited economic fallacies that they would find unacceptable in what, to my mind, are actually far more reasonable contexts, like healthcare or education - that the spinoffs from the spending will justify the cost, that a race to the moon will provide jobs, that the research required will help stimulate America's scientific productivity, etc, etc. Should one ever bother to point out that these worthy objectives could be more cheaply achieved by more direct methods not involving space travel, the typical response is to poo-poo the critic's lack of imagination, or to accuse him of hard-heartedness for rubbishing fantasies of space travel cherished since childhood.

I will confess to holding no romantic illusions where manned space travel is concerned, as I think it a complete waste of time and money, as long as it is being done on the government dime. Bullshit rationalizations aside, the overwhelming consensus is that there is precious little scientific justification for sending men into space, whether it be to the moon or (as is much more typical) the low-earth-orbit that is the usual destination of the space shuttle. From a scientific perspective, unmanned probes can do everything men can do in and more, and they can do it for a fraction of the cost, since there is no need to send and bring them back in one piece, or feed and shelter them while they're out there. Any "libertarian" who can pretend to himself that there is some sort of merit in throwing taxpayers' money down the black hole that would be another manned trip to the moon is simply demonstrating that a government program is only seen as a waste of money when the prospect of its' demise threatens no sacred cows of one's own.