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Libertarians in Space

After quoting from a speech where a Republican presidential candidate praises the space program, Mark Palko writes:

I [Palko] don’t know what the reaction of the crowd was (the reporting wasn’t that detailed) but I’d imagine it was friendly. You can usually get a warm response from a Republican crowd by coming out in favor of manned space exploration which is, when you think about, strange as hell.

If you set out to genetically engineer a program that libertarians ought to object to, you’d probably come up with something like the manned space program. A massive government initiative, tremendously expensive, with no real role for individual initiative. Compared to infrastructure projects the benefits to business are limited. . . . There have been efforts in libertarian-leaning organs (The Wall Street Journal, Reason, John Tierney’s NYT columns) trying to argue that interplanetary exploration can be done on the cheap. These usually rely heavily on the blatant low-balling of Robert Zubrin . . . but even if we were to accept these numbers, it’s still difficult to reconcile this kind of government program with libertarian values.

We can break this into three questions:

1. Do conservative libertarian Republicans actually support the space program?

2. Is support for the space program stronger among this group than among liberals and Democrats?

3. If the answer to 1 and 2 is Yes, what gives? How can we understand this pattern in the context of the apparent contradictions with anti-government ideology?

Here goes:

1. According to Gallup, 58% of Americans surveyed in 2009 answered Yes to the question, “It is not 40 years since the United States first landed men on the moon. Do you think the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs, or don’t you think so?” The percentage has gradually over the past three decades. 60% of respondents think that funding for the space program should be increased or kept at the current level, and “58% of Americans say NASA is doing an excellent (13%) or good (45%) job.”

Gallup reports that, paradoxically (but, unfortunately, unsurprisingly), “The high point in support for current or larger funding levels for NASA was 76% in January 1986, immediately after the space shuttle Challenger disaster.”

The space program is more popular among younger people and among college graduates.

2. We use National Election Study data to examine the correlations among many different issues, including space exploration, in my paper with Delia. The correlation between attitudes on “federal spending on space” with party identification or political ideology is about 0.1. (Just to calibrate, attitudes toward defense spending question is correlated at about 0.3 with party ID and ideology, while a question about school prayer has correlations close to zero.)

3. So, support for the space program does not seem particularly associated with conservative or Republican positions. (It would require further analysis to examine correlation with economically libertarian attitudes but I expect that if someone did the work, he or she would find a low correlation there as well.)

But I do think I know what Palko was getting at. High-tech space exploration, like high-tech military, high-tech nuclear power, high-tech agriculture, and high-tech education, does seem popular among conservative libertarian writers (not just John Tierney, but he’s as good an example as any). On the other side, high-tech solar and wind power, high-tech energy conservation, and high-tech communication and networking seem more popular on the left.

My quick response is that political ideologies are interesting but ultimately you can’t make sense of them: any given person’s views are a many-possibilitied tangle.

But maybe there’s something here. A good start might be this classic bit from P. J. O’Rourke:

We are the Republican Party Reptiles. We look like Republicans, and think like conservatives, but we drive a lot faster and keep vibrators and baby oil and a video camera behind the stack of sweaters on the bedroom closet shelf. I think our agenda is clear. We are opposed to: government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear power, busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N., taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men. We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Nastassia Kinski, Star Wars (and anything else that scares the Russkis), and a firm stand on the Middle East (raze buildings, burn crops, plow the earth with salt, and sell the population into bondage).

There are thousands of people in America who feel this way, especially after three or four drinks. If all of us would unite and work together, we could give this country … well, a real bad hangover.

It you think the U.S. is great, that leads to supporting a strong military. And the space program has a strong military connection. As does military power. And this fits in with a libertarian attitude, to the extent that it is focused on the international expansion of capitalism, and to the extent that military contractors are seen as having the virtues attributed to private business.

15 Comments

  1. Ayn Rand strongly defended the space program (mistakenly, in my view) as a crowning achievement for human rationality (see her essay “Apollo and Dionysus,” contrasting the moon landing with Woodstock). Tyler Cowen shares her view. Libertarians influenced by Rand or Cowen may be buying into this.

    • Jeremy R says:

      I’m not sure how useful Ayn Rand can be in gauging libertarian ideology, given her rather hawkish outlook on foreign policy ( among other things). Cowen is probably more relevant in this regard.

      Reason, CATO, LewRockwell, and von Mises institute have all been pretty consistent in labeling NASA as a prime example of government waste.

  2. Jflycn says:

    Republican != Libertarian

  3. Wonks Anonymous says:

    Some libertarians are interested in private alternatives like the X-Prize. Peter Thiel wants to colonize space. But otherwise, yeah it’s pretty bizarre. Manned exploration in particular is wasteful.

  4. Zach says:

    I also know a few ardent libertarians that are still pro-public funded science research, particularly for projects such as large particle accelerators, where the basic research could potentially revolutionize scientific understanding (and perhaps technology down the line) but the initial investments are far too risky and expensive for traditional venture capital.

    Despite commercial space flight now coming online, I tend to throw space exploration into the same category. The rewards can be great in the distant future, but the initial investment might be hard for the commercial sector to stomach.

    Does anyone know if private space corps are receiving tax breaks or subsidies or something?

  5. Norris says:

    Seems a very muddled commentary on some equally muddled concept of libertarians & a space-progam.

    Casually lumping libertarians with “conservatives” and Republicans is grossly incorrect. There are no
    “conservative libertarian” persons… just as there are no cat dog animals.

    There is absolutely no “libertarian attitude” … “focused on the international expansion of capitalism… to the extent that military contractors are seen as having the virtues attributed to private business.”

    That “…political ideologies are interesting but ultimately you can’t make sense of them..” is also incorrect.

    Ultimately, there are but two basic political ideologies/attitudes held by modern humans. Most people wish to control other people; a minority have no wish to do so. Libertarians are in the second group.

    There’s no point in analyzing a libertarian view on any specific issue (e.g., space-program) without a grasp of fundamental libertarian ideology.

  6. Nameless says:

    There are very few libertarians in the Republican party. WSJ may probably qualify as a libertarian-leaning organ, but it does not reflect the view of the whole party in this aspect. Most Republicans are in favor of a large defense budget and world domination.

    In a July 2011 CNN/ORC poll, subjects were asked “How important do you think it is for the United States to be ahead of Russia and other countries in space exploration?”. Democrats went 37% “very important” / 36% “not too important”. Republicans went 41%/31%. Tea Party supporters went 44%/27%.

    Republicans and Tea Party supporters do believe that the country should rely a lot more on private companies than on the government. But they care enough about the issue and about the prestige of the country that, in the absence of alternatives, they are willing to tolerate NASA.

    True libertarians believe that the government has no business conducting any activity in space (unless it has to do with defense) and that NASA should be privatized. (And not just “subcontracted to private companies” privatized, which it already is, but “completely cut off from taxpayer money” privatized.) They refer to many current activities of NASA as “vanity projects”. Very few Republicans subscribe to this philosophy.

  7. Larry Wasserman says:

    Hi Andrew

    1. Libertarians are not conservatives.

    2. I’m a libertarian and I don’t know a single libertarian who
    believes in “international expansion of capitalism”.

    3. The WSJ is hardly a libertarian newspaper.

    That’s all.
    Larry

  8. Andrew says:

    Norris, Nameless, Larry:

    All of you make good points. “Libertarian” is not a monolithic political program. Some libertarians are conservative, some are not. I think Palko is correct that the Wall Street Journal, Reason, and John Tierney are “libertarian-leaning” but this does not make any of them purely libertarian (even if such a concept could be defined). I also think P. J. O’Rourke is libertarian-leaning, and he and others with similar leanings have expressed support for international expansion of freedom, of which capitalism is a part.

    In any case, after accepting the unavoidable ambiguity in labeling, I think Palko is on to something, that many libertarians (including John Tierney, Ayn Rand, and many in the audience of the Republican presidential candidate) are fans of the space program and other advanced technologies.

    As regular readers of this blog know, I’m interested in the connection between political attitudes and attitudes toward science, technology, and progress, and I think this is an interesting example.

  9. Mark Palko says:

    Andrew,

    Excellent analysis but I do have one quibble: if possible it would be nice to break “federal spending on space” into manned and unmanned. Tierney and the other people we’ve discussed here generally focus on manned exploration despite the greater expense and less tangible benefits.

    Mark

    p.s. I was tending to equate libertarians with small-government/low-tax people which was lazy on my part.

  10. John Mashey says:

    Is Libertarian a useful category/classification in this regard? (as opposed to conservative or something else?)

    In either direction:
    1) If a person or organization says they are Libertarian, is there a set of beliefs/actions that would be likely?

    2) Assuming there are reasonable clusters, and one of them is Libertarianism, what combinations of beliefs is needed to classify a person/organization as Libertarian?

    • K? O'Rourke says:

      John:

      1) They believe nothing exists other than (perceived) collections of things (like themselves).
      2) Just believing in Nominalism.

      And at least according to CS Peirce, they constituted the greatest possible evil and did not understand the real number system.

      So Larry is either evil or mistaken ;-)

      (Apologies if this seems too serious.)

  11. robert says:

    “1. According to Gallup, 58% of Americans surveyed in 2009 answered Yes to the question, “It is not 40 years since the United States first landed men on the moon. Do you think the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs, or don’t you think so?” The percentage has gradually over the past three decades. 60% of respondents think that funding for the space program should be increased or kept at the current level, and “58% of Americans say NASA is doing an excellent (13%) or good (45%) job.””

    These statements, from selected leading questions, are taken as meaningful from which to make any sort of conclusions?

    How many in the survey can name 3 or more benefits?
    How many can name the total cost?
    Who do they compare a monopoly such as NASA with in “doing an excellent job”?
    What is an excellent job?

    Answers:
    None or very few
    None
    Nobody
    Don’t know

    So of those minute few qualified to comment none had anything worth saying.

    • idiot says:

      “So of those minute few qualified to comment none had anything worth saying.”

      Why? Don’t they vote? Participate in political activism? Offer their opinions on the Internet in online comments? You don’t need to be informed to have a political opinion, and only asking “informed” peoples would prejudice the results by creating a smaller sample size and creating arbitrary distinctions (how will we measure intelligence…by education status?).

      And these uninformed, unqualified individuals are the constituents that our representatives, our Senators, our PRESIDENT supposedly represents! Their views matter, far more so than those “qualified to comment”, because they are the ones that this government must theoretically actual SERVE.

  12. Ryan says:

    Is that really the question Gallup asked? I’ve long considered the courses I had to take in survey design (and analysis) to be as equally important as the ones in applied stats. To me Gallup asked that question in an overly-confusing, and possibly leading, way. Maybe I just work with a different crowd in survey research.