Thursday, February 18, 2016

Queen Isabella and the Paradox of How Tyranny Drives Exploration

This blog post is a follow up to my earlier post about why we have not colonized Mars yet.

I got a comment recently to the effect that "If you are free you can use your power to reason and act on it and huge advancements are made. Going to Mars is a stupid idea relative to how we are now. It is not beneficial."

It's actually quite a bit more complicated than that.

  • The greatest freedom does not necessarily lead to the highest degree of technological advance, because if you are happy with your current situation, you tend to have less incentive to change things.
  • It's not "stupid" to want to go to Mars. That is a value judgment. Some people are naturally interested in exploring the world and learning what is out there, even when there is no "need" for a new invention or more space. Not everything in life is about dire "need". The only issue is who will pay for the curiosity itch. Under free enterprise, the curious pay for their curiosity themselves.

Chimpanzees and human hunter-gatherers in their natural habitat have less technology than people living in the Scandinavian countries or in habitats that are not naturally suited for apes to live in. Why? Partially, because there is no "need" and hence it would not be "beneficial", as the commentator said about colonizing Mars.

But whenever conditions get too crowded in the environment in which we evolve, some of us are spurred to move out and travel great distances and go to places where food does not just grow on trees, and you have to find ways to heat during winter and to store seeds and grain and dead meat, and do all sorts of things that do not come naturally and require thought and planning. Later, when people who have done this look back at their ancestors and their contemporary cousins who are still in the natural lifestyle, they think they themselves are much more advanced and the others seem primitive and lazy. But necessity is the mother of invention, and if you don't have to work for others in order to survive, why should you? Arguably, there is less freedom under more advanced technology, because things that nature gives us for free in a tropical paradise-- warmth and food -- have to be worked for, and people find themselves specializing in certain skills and trading with others who have other skills. As long as people work only for themselves and not to support others by force, it's still free enterprise, but when property taxes to pay just for getting to hold onto a plot of land are figured into the equation, people are forced to work for others to pay the cash for the taxes on the property every year. Once health insurance becomes mandatory, they have to work for others just for the right to exist. And now freedom to decide how to live is gone, which is a great incentive to move someplace else where one might be able to find more freedom from serving others by force.

That's one side of the issue. The other side is that there will always be people who are curious about what is found beyond the distant horizon. Scientists want to know -- they pursue knowledge for its own sake. Explorers are people who want to travel far from where they live. They don't care if they profit. They have the itch. But who will pay for it? Many space aficionados admit openly that the Statist desire to beat other countries is the motive behind the funding they hope to get from their government. Take Leslie Fish's song, "Queen Isabella", in which it is explained that Christopher Columbus got state funding that was entirely motivated by colonial expansionism and misguided missionary zeal. The would-be space explorer realizes that only through an arms-race competition with other nations did NASA land a man on the moon. And the hope is that some new Queen Isabella, equally deranged, will continue to fund the space program.

It is not "stupid" to want to visit Mars. It is not "stupid" to try to teach an ape human language. The thirst for knowledge for its own sake is as old as mankind. The only problem is: how to pay for the experiment? As long as it is privately funded, no experiment need be "beneficial" -- because it does not involve unwilling participants.

Questions like "what do we need?" or "what is beneficial" depend entirely on the person asking them. In a free society, what one person wants is not what another wants. Each decides what is beneficial to himself. And no question is stupid. Knowledge for its own sake is fine, as long as you pay for it yourself.

Freedom does not entail constant growth. Science does not serve technology; it is a value in its own right. Expanding technology is not necessarily a product of free enterprise. In a free society, people are left to be as lazy or as industrious as they like -- as curious or as lethargic as their own nature dictates. There is no norm. There are no rules -- except that you don't force another person to work at something that he does not choose to do. If you want to go to Mars, you pay for it yourself.


  1. I think different groups and different people have different interests. I would never say going to Mars is dumb, as it is something many people specialize in studying for years. I simply have no interest in it. We need people to specialize in a myriad of things we have no interest in because there often comes a day we need people who can do those things, like plumbing, etc.

    1. Of course. What one person finds interesting, another may find "stupid" or boring. If we each pay our own way, then we can each study what interests us, and perhaps it may even be of use to others someday. And if not, that's okay, too.