Amidst all the hoopla over the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it’s easy to forget that this was just another 20th-century massive public-works project, no different in principle from federal dams, the Interstate Highway System, Amtrak, the Tennessee Valley Authority, public housing, and other socialist projects. As such, except for libertarians, everyone fails to ask a simple but important question: What business does government have in sending people to the moon and, for that matter, building dams, highways, trains, electrical companies, and public housing?
We shouldn’t forget how government gets its money, especially compared to how people in the private sector get their money. The federal government gets its money through force. That’s what income taxation is based on. People are forced to send a large percentage of their income to the U.S. Treasury to fund the government. If they fail or refuse to do so, they are harassed, audited, arrested, prosecuted, fined, or jailed.
In contrast, people in the private sector get their money voluntarily. Businesses make their money by providing goods and services that people are willing to pay for. They also secure capital from people who are willing to invest their money in that business, again on a voluntary basis.
Thus, if a private business proposed sending a man to the moon, who could object, at least from a moral standpoint? The business would be using its own money to perform the deed. If the project failed, the business would be losing its own money or money that was invested or donated by others. The risk would have been voluntarily assumed.
With the government, the moral problem is readily apparent. Where is the morality in forcibly taking money from people in order to fund a trip to the moon? If people wanted to use their money for that purpose, they would be free to invest in a private venture to the moon or donate their money to fund the project. Instead, the government effectively says: “You’re going to fund this program whether you like it or not” and then confiscates a people’s money to fund the project.
There is something else to consider in this process — what the 19th-century French free-market legislator Frederic Bastiat termed “that which is seen versus that which is not seen.” Federal officials love to point to the moon landing and exclaim, “Look at what we accomplished with your tax monies!”
What they don’t do is point to all the things that did not come into existence because people were unable to use the money that was taken from. We can’t point to those things for the obvious reason that they never were never permitted to come into existence because the money was taken from people to fund the moon trip. But let’s hypothesize. Let’s imagine that all the money that was taken from people to fund the moon trip would have been used to develop a cure for cancer. Given a choice between a government trip to the moon and the discovery of a cure for cancer, my hunch is that most people would choose the latter.
Proponents of public-works projects say that private businesses would never have funded the trip to the moon and that only the federal government could pull it off. They use the same argument on their other grandiose socialist programs.
The fallacy in their argument is two-fold: first, the private sector is much more capable of doing the public-works projects than government does but simply finds other things more urgent to do with limited resources at that particular time and under those circumstances. For example, suppose a society has an extremely low standard of living. In that case, the available resources would likely go into making people more productive, so as to raise the overall standard of living. That’s because people consider that to be more important than sending someone to the moon. Once there is a high standard of living and a large amount of wealth in society, then people can begin thinking about doing other things, like sending a manned rocket to the moon.
The government doesn’t care about how people in society perceive their most urgent needs. It wants a moon trip (or an Interstate Highway System, etc.) and so it simply confiscates people’s money through taxation to fund it, regardless of the adverse effect it has had on people’s overall standard of living. In the process, it deprives people of using their own money to address their most urgent needs on a voluntary basis.
It stands to reason why proponents of massive public works projects would be celebrating the federal government’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing. But for any advocate of an economic system based private-property, free markets, and limited government, it’s just another reminder of America’s turn toward socialism in the 20th century.