The Fable of the Shoes

Jonah Goldberg praises Ron Paul’s stance on health care, and takes to task the status-quo bias of even many Republicans, recalling the thought experiment by Murray Rothbard:

“So identified has the State become in the public mind with the provision of these services,” Rothbard laments, “that an attack on State financing appears to many people as an attack on the service itself.” The libertarian who wants to get the government out of a certain business is “treated in the same way as he would be if the government had, for various reasons, been supplying shoes as a tax-financed monopoly from time immemorial.”

If everyone had always gotten their shoes from the government, writes Rothbard, the proponent of shoe privatization would be greeted as a kind of lunatic. “How could you?” defenders of the status quo would squeal. “You are opposed to the public, and to poor people, wearing shoes! And who would supply shoes . . . if the government got out of the business? Tell us that! Be constructive! It’s easy to be negative and smart-alecky about government; but tell us who would supply shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in each city and town? . . . What material would they use? . . . Suppose a poor person didn’t have the money to buy a pair?”

Such a bias toward the status quo similarly infects our thinking and debate on space policy. The highest achievement in the minds of many was landing a man on the moon, and such a feat is viewed as the epitome of a human spaceflight program, and the only model to follow. Ignoring the issue of the pork, such thinking resulted in the Constellation plan (“Apollo on Steroids”) and now it’s giving us the disastrous Senate Launch System (as I discussed over at Pajamas Media yesterday). It’s what I have called the Apollo Cargo Cult — in too many minds, if we don’t have a really big rocket developed and operated by NASA, we don’t have a Real Space Program.

The problem is that, while (fortunately) the government hasn’t always supplied shoes, in the minds of too many, it has always supplied human spaceflight, and when you propose to do it in any other way, no matter how much more cost effective, the same cries arise: “Are you crazy?! Why do you hate space exploration?! Spaceflight is hard! Only NASA knows how to put people into space! Who is going to do it if not NASA? These people are just hobbyists in garages! What if all of the commercial companies fail and go out of business?! (Yes, people really ask that.) What if they can’t hit their cost targets? What material will they use? What if we can’t store propellant in orbit?”

Like people who can’t imagine life without a government post office, or air traffic control (it’s private in Switzerland), or other things with which they have no experience, they can’t conceive of space activities that don’t consist of a few government employees on top of a really big rocket, with lots more government employees at desks in control rooms directing the show.

For these people, there will be no convincing them until there is an existence proof. There actually was, last December, when SpaceX put their pressurized Dragon capsule into orbit and returned it safely to earth, a feat that only three countries have performed, and no other private company has to date. While it had no life-support system per se, it was a sufficiently short trip that a company employee could have been aboard with a scuba tank and a bean-bag chair and had, in Elon Musk’s words at the press conference after, a “pretty nice ride.” And it might have gone some of the distance to shutting up the naysayers, except that if they had, this time they would be decrying the cavalier approach to “safety” and offered it up as proof that commercial companies weren’t to be trusted with the lives of astronauts, which are apparently so precious that they can’t be risked on actual spaceflight.

Of course, even after SpaceX (or Boeing, or others) do actually launch people into orbit, with a launch abort system and life support, the doubters will just move the goal posts. “Well, sure they can get people into space, but only NASA knows how to go to the moon! And you can’t do it without a really big rocket. Because that’s how we did it in Apollo!” “Well, OK, so they flew someone around the moon, but they haven’t landed anyone there. Only NASA knows how to do that! With a really big rocket!” “Well, OK, so they landed on the moon, but they didn’t stay very long. Because their rocket wasn’t big enough.” “So, they have a lunar mining facility, and now they’ve landed on Mars. Big deal. NASA has a twenty-year plan to go to Saturn. With a really big rocket.”

Assuming that NASA even exists by then, of course. Perhaps by then we’ll have finally changed the status quo.