Space Triumphs--Marred

Imagine your neighbor throwing a party to show off his brand new high tech boat -- or flower garden or remodeled kitchen. Pick your item and imagine the triumph in your neighbor's eyes, voice and body language. You would surely be a spoilsport to try to rain on his parade with any kind of negative or derisive comment. What a mean thing that would be!

But imagine that you discovered that your neighbor had built his invention by first raiding his other neighbor's savings account. His fabulous new gizmo no longer looks so fabulous to you and, you conclude, it is quite perverse that it looks fabulous to him. Sure, it is still something of a wonder -- what a thing to create, to build. But it cannot be reasonably denied that the means by which the fellow got the thing done, namely, by robbing his other neighbor, cast a very serous cloud over whatever wonderful thing he made that way.

Well, that's how I see all those fabulous achievements of NASA, including some of the American government's space exploration. It is actually worse than that. Since most of those who take part in those ventures are completely oblivious to the venality of the means by which their projects get off the ground -- how their funding is secured, how it deprives millions of citizens of various amounts of wealth from which they might have produced their own more or less fabulous creations -- I am not only appalled at the viciousness of these celebrations but also at the rank moral ignorance of all those who go about the celebration without a clue as to its source.

It would, indeed, be more honest to witness at least some of the folks who come on television to proclaim the wonders of these achievements if they toasted the extortionist scheme that provided them with the funding. At least we would learn that these folks are aware of what they are doing, that they are vicious but not also stupid. Instead, however, they go about their celebrations blithely, as if nothing untoward had been involved in how it all came to be achieved.

I am by no means some kind of Luddite who thinks the great leaps of technology, including space explorations, demonstrate the sin of hubris on part of the human race. No, that ignorant scientists and technologists who can stand and cheer when a brilliant payload lands on Mars and sends back stunning pictures that tell us all kinds of stuff we could make use of. It isn't even necessary in these cases to produce immediate utilitarian results -- the feats in and of themselves, like those of other human adventures, are often sufficient to cause delight for most decent people.

However, when one knows that these feats are produced on the backs of millions of tax payers -- folks from whom wealth is confiscated at the point of a gun, ultimately, and who might very well have had vital objectives to pursue with the aid of their wealth and were cruelly deprived of this -- there is no way to take part in all the hoopla. In fact, witnessing the morally blind pride exhibited by all those scientists, engineers, and administrators is quite painful. I must deny myself the joy I know I would feel if the accomplishments had not had been fueled by blood money.

But, perhaps I am odd. When I run across the so called marvels of past civilizations in Europe and elsewhere, such as the palaces, cathedrals, pyramids, great walls, and magnificent monuments, I find it difficult not to reflect on the deliberate, utterly avoidable human devastation that it took to get many of these artifacts produced. I always ask myself how things would have gone had all those people who were conscripted to labor on all these wondrous creations had the chance to choose their own projects.

I realize, of course, that they would probably have squandered a good deal of their lives and resources but, then, I recall that their conscripted labor and resources also went to waste a good deal of the time -- in the service of wars of conquest, subjugation or confiscation, or of idolatry and frivolity. And then I recall, too, that while perhaps some of these products of forced labor, just as the recent Mars landing of the unmanned space craft, were wonderful and even helpful, we will never know how it would have gone had individuals been left free to determine to what end to devote their own labors and resources. And, of course, it is also worth keeping in mind that many of the fabulous achievements resulting from conscripted mass labor created environmental destruction, too, which the less grandiose, more modest voluntary projects of individuals and small groups of freely united humans tended to avoid. (Just think of TVA, the Interstate Highway System, the massive canal projects and damns around the globe.)

But, yes, some of these projects are wonderful. They are only made not so by the fact that their creation violated the most elementary principle of civilized human association, freedom of choice.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.