What Should Libertarians Do When The Government Gets It Right?


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.

  • Mark

    Another point that is worth bringing up on this topic:

    Yes, government can, has done, and will continue to create and invent wondrous products. But it does so in an incredibly wasteful and inefficient way. Yes, the NASA space program gave us amazing technological advances, but it did so with an incredible price tag.

    Free market R&D is always done under the pressure and scrutiny of the profit margin, and thus, there is a much stronger incentive for private companies to limit the costs of the R&D research. If a company spends too much money in wasteful or inefficient research, they’ll go bankrupt. Government has no such incentives for these limitations, and taxpayers foot the bill for the waste.

    • Agreed; the free market does a much BETTER job at producing higher quality products at a much lower cost. The government IS wasteful, coercive, and inefficient (most libertarians know this) in trying to create new products. But in reaching out to non-libertarians, these kinds of argument don’t work very well.

      • Pochy

        What about the NIH? THe NIH is basically proof that government is better (not really) in Basic Science research? No biotechnology company can compete with the contributions that the NIH has done. (somewhat sarcastically said) Even though they bitch about how little money they are given when almost 1% of the Budget is given to them. And they have worthless departments like NCCAM and minority health. And they basically crowd the market by taking all the geniuses for themselves. My god, i answered my own question.

    • Ivan P

      “Yes, the NASA space program gave us amazing technological advances, but it did so with an incredible price tag.”

      You forget that NASA created huge positive externalities; the research created many products we use today. Unfortunately, libertarians attribute this to the success of the free market and never give credit to the NASA program.

  • I agree. It’s not useful to try to hate on good things government has done and try to claim it would’ve been done by the market. No one knows and it’s just alienating.

  • Most of those technological advances “the government got right” were at least indirectly linked to “national defense”. Even allowing for the non-aggression principle (allowing for self-defense), there should be no libertarian conflict with the government spe
    nding money on technological development as it relates to the defense of its citizens.

  • Steve

    In the case of the space program, I would point out that it grew out of the legitimate government purpose of national defense, specifically post-WW2 rocket / ICBM development.

  • I often make the argument that the government, just by the odds, is bound to get some things right. The issue is knowing when those things occur. Which is why government is flawed. It has no method of discerning useful allocations of resources from non-useful allocations of resources. It’s guesswork.

    Though I still shy away from declaring so boldly as you that the government “got it right” with NASA or the internet. It makes me uncomfortable to say that one path of development is “right”, based almost entirely on the fact that it is the path we happened to experience. One could just as well say that Soviet Russia got it “right” because they arguably sped the development of Russia’s industrialization. Attaching normative judgments to development just seems very illiberal to me. Do we imagine a high-tech society, or an industrial society, or any other specific policy end, were the “ideal”, and government moved us towards it so it is right? Half the point of free markets is that we dispense with central planners’ destructive ideals.

  • Josh

    How do you know government has done space technology cost efficiently?

    Hint: You don’t. Why? Because government socialization of science still falls victim to [Ludwig Von Mises’s Socialist Economic Calculation Problem Theory](http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Economic_calculation_problem).

  • notfromdenver

    “However, when specific products are in question, libertarians cannot empirically make this assertion.”

    The State didn’t invented/created everything that was employed in the production process.How could NASA make rockets [hundreds of parts made in private factories,with materials that come from private mining,all these combined by individuals who learned in private universities and so on…] without all these “instruments” being made prior ?

    • Rex

      How could NASA make rockets [hundreds of parts made in private
      factories,with materials that come from private mining,all these
      combined by individuals who learned in private universities and so

      So who were these people making rockets and parts for before NASA came into the picture? American taxpayers’ money funded the development of these rockets regardless of whether they were directly produced by NASA or contracted to Boeing/Lockheed Martin or others; NASA was the only entity that was using them. It’s not as though there was a burgeoning market for rockets before NASA came along.