Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Space triumphs -- marred

Freedom News Service

Imagine your neighbor throwing a party to show off a new boat, flower garden or remodeled kitchen. Pick your item, and imagine the triumph in your neighbor's eyes, voice and body language. You would be a spoilsport to rain on his parade with negative or derisive comments. What a mean thing that would be!
But imagine you discovered that your neighbor had financed his new addition by first raiding his other neighbor's savings account. His fabulous new addition no longer looks so fabulous to you. And, you conclude, it is quite perverse that it looks fabulous to him. Sure, it is still a wonder -- what a thing to create, buy or build. But it cannot be denied that the means by which the fellow got the thing done, namely robbing his other neighbor, cast a serious cloud over the end result.
That's how I see all the fabulous achievements of NASA, including some of the government's space exploration. It is actually worse than that. Since most of those who take part in these ventures are completely oblivious to the venality of how these projects get off the ground -- how the funding is secured; how it deprives millions of citizens of wealth from which they might have produced their own more or less fabulous creations -- I am appalled at the viciousness of these celebrations and also at the rank moral ignorance of those who go about the celebration without a clue as to its source.
It would be more honest if some of the folks who came on TV to proclaim the wonders of these achievements at least toasted the extortionist scheme that provided them with the funding. At least we would learn that these folks are aware of what they are doing; that they are vicious but not stupid. Instead, however, they go about their celebrations blithely, as if nothing untoward had been involved in how it came about.
I am no Luddite. I am not someone who thinks great leaps of technology, including space exploration, demonstrate the sin of hubris on the part of the human race. No, that's not it. In a way, I envy those ignorant scientists and technologists who can stand and cheer when a brilliant payload lands on Mars and sends back stunning pictures that tell us stuff we could make use of. It isn't even necessary in these cases to produce immediate utilitarian results -- the feats in and of themselves, like those of other human adventures, are often sufficient to cause delight for most people.
However, when one knows that these feats are produced on the backs of millions of tax payers -- folks from whom wealth is confiscated at the point of a gun, and who might well have had vital objectives to pursue with the aid of their wealth -- there is no way to take part in all the hoopla. In fact, witnessing the morally blind pride exhibited by the scientists, engineers and administrators is quite painful for me. I must deny myself the joy I know I would feel if the accomplishments had not been fueled by blood money.
But perhaps I am odd. When I run across the so-called marvels of past civilizations in Europe and elsewhere, such as the palaces, cathedrals, pyramids, great walls and magnificent monuments, I find it difficult not to reflect on the deliberate, utterly avoidable human devastation that it took to get many of these artifacts produced. I always ask myself how things would have gone had all those people who were conscripted to labor on all these wondrous creations had the chance to choose their own projects.
I realize, of course, they would probably have squandered a good deal of their lives and resources, but then I recall that their conscripted labor and resources also went to waste a good deal of the time -- in the service of wars of conquest, subjugation or confiscation, or of idolatry and frivolity. And then I recall, too, that while perhaps some of these products of forced labor, just as the recent Mars landing of the unmanned spacecraft, were wonderful and even helpful, we will never know how it would have gone had individuals been left free to determine to what end to devote their labors and resources.
Of course, it is also worth keeping in mind that many of the fabulous achievements resulting from conscripted mass labor created environmental destruction, too, which the less grandiose, more modest voluntary projects of individuals and small groups of freely united humans tended to avoid. (Just think of TVA, the Interstate Highway System, the massive canal projects and damns around the globe.)
But, yes, some of these projects are wonderful. They are only made not so by the fact that their creation violated the most elementary principle of civilized human association, freedom of choice.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu

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