What Should Libertarians Do When The Government Gets It Right?

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Exploring the galaxy may not be so far, far away.

We are encroaching a new era of space exploration. I’m not talking about missions to send astronauts to the moon in a vain attempt to demonstrate national superiority or satellites scrapped together to monitor Earth’s weather. I’m talking about private companies funding missions for corporate gain. The first step is putting people, not just rovers, on Mars.

As of now, there are a variety of firms that are preparing to send humans to Mars. The business model? Mars-One, one such organization, argues that if the Olympics can be profitable based off of media attention (to the tune of hundreds of millions), a similar model for space exploration via reality TV will be highly pragmatic. Consider the success of Red Bull’s Stratos mission with Felix Baumgartner. Earthlings are fascinated with the extraordinary, and are certainly willing to tune in to watch the drama of the unknown unfold.

This reflects the very recent shift of who has a vested interest in space. Governments in the past have claimed space for the interests of their people. Now, private enterprises have taken over. Consider what people in space have provided us, including private telecommunications, remote sensing, and meteorological satellites. Now consider this: the free market did not produce a majority of this technology.

There are times, as a libertarian, when I’m asked to explain when the government provides a good or service that actually subsidizes the functioning of the private market. Another relatively recent example outside of space technology was the government’s involvement in the invention of the Internet (naturally, there is debate among libertarians the extent to which the government helped). In these particular cases, I happen to find libertarian objections more contrarian than actually based in fact. This creates somewhat of a dilemma. For these two inventions, the government provided a fantastic good to the private sector. Can a classical liberal, such as myself, actually admit that the government did something right?

I can hear the screams of disdain now. “The free market would have eventually produced the Internet/ heart-assist pumps/ satellites/ etc,” they say. Alright guys, I get it. The free market could have produced these technologies. But here’s the thing about spontaneous order: you can’t predict anything, not even what the free market would have produced in the absence of government. In other words, we may not be in space or using the Internet right now without the federal government. How can a libertarian respond to this without using strawman classically liberal economic theory?

Acknowledge it as an accomplishment, and move on.

The truth is, most of government spending is wasted, either on wars or on social programs. We know this. Libertarians can reach to both sides of the aisle on this issue, same as cronyism (which forms of outrageous spending and corporatism vary between parties). What this means for us that we can acknowledge the government’s successes and then point out their overall inconsistency for generating products as impactful as the ones listed above (seriously, my childhood would have probably been a lot healthier without the presence of Tang). These successes are statistical outliers. 

One of the biggest problems libertarians have is this adage: the free market will produce what has already been produced by the public sector. For an overall service, such as welfare and healthcare, libertarians have the privilege of pointing to history and highlighting free market successes in the past. However, when specific products are in question, libertarians cannot empirically make this assertion. When libertarians are faced with questions of the Internet, space exploration, and similar government-funded products, they should accede, and then point out the waste in trying to reproduce the success in the future.