Make Spaceships, Not Slogans
The accelerating and increasingly successful effort of private enterprise to bring humans to space are often derisively described as a “billionaires’ space race”. News of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’ flights demonstrating the capabilities of their respective spacecraft triggered much discussion about (i) tax-avoiding practices of the rich; (ii) how money should be spent on charity instead; (iii) whether private space flight was ethical in the face of inequality, climate crisis, etc; and (iv) whether we should even care.
Contrast this with the excitement and fascination with which, say, the Met Gala, at which the rich and famous fundraise for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, is routinely met. Such events are, as Megan McArdle has rightly pointed out, one of those tax-avoidance practices, of course. We doubt, moreover, that the Costume Institute—to which we mean no slight—is quite the sort of charitable endeavour that the critics of the spacefaring billionaires have in mind as an appropriate recipient of the 1%’s largesse.
And of course, John Q. Public has no more of a prospect of ever making it to the Met Gala than to orbit in the foreseeable future. In the long term, spaceflight may well become rather more accessible, because, unlike hobnobbing with the rich and famous, it need not be a positional good. The billionaires dabbling in it now are not only self-promoting and giving a handful of worthy strangers the time of their lives. By absorbing the enormous costs of the early development of a new technology, they are, in effect, making a down-payment on our collective behalf.
Yet their ventures are met with acrimony in the same quarters where the sartorial sloganeering of a self-proclaimed socialist, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at the Met Gala, arouses keen interest and admiration. This, sadly, is a reflection of a worldview that deprecates entrepreneurial success and admires the use of government power to rein it in. Thus the creation of new businesses, indeed of an entirely new category of business, is suspicious, while a call to “tax the rich” is supposed to be an act of courage.
Unlike private spaceflight, this worldview is no innovation. In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek pointed out that a desire “to take from the rich as much as we can” was the lowest common denominator of mindless egalitarianism. He decried “the deliberate disparagement of all activities involving economic risk and the moral opprobrium cast on the gains which make risks worth taking but which only few can win,” and lamented the fact that “[t]he younger generation of today has grown up in a world in which in school and press the spirit of commercial enterprise has been represented as disreputable and the making of profit as immoral, where to employ a hundred people is represented as exploitation but to command the same number as honorable.” We still live in this lamentable world.
Yet we should remain hopeful. The opprobrium visited on entrepreneurs has not stopped the free-flowing creative energies of new space race’s competitors. Perhaps the excitement of this competition can remind us that entrepreneurial success is always shared, unlike political victories. While the immediate gains rebound to the owners of the successful venture, the long-term benefits flow to the consumers who can eventually enjoy what was once only available to the super-rich. And if economic arguments such as this are too dismal for the scolds, we think that the fiery imagery of the night launch of the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission, and the smiles of its all-civilian crew, can outshine any flashy dress.
Leonid Sirota will be Associate Professor at the Reading Law School from 2022; he is the creator of the Double Aspect blog
Akshaya Kamalnath is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University College of Law and blogs at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Corporate Governance