Ron Paul has unveiled a fiscal plan that would eliminate the Commerce Department, among other departments. The Commerce Department includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and one of NOAA’s functions is operating the nation’s weather satellites.
Paul’s plan would zero out Commerce immediately, which means NOAA would also go away. (Interestingly, though, Paul’s line-item presentation of his plan is not detailed enough to include any mention of NOAA.) That raises some questions:
What will happen to the weather satellites under Paul’s plan?
Will they be privatized?
Does Paul have a plan ready for their privatization, including such matters as who will own them and how their services will be paid for?
Did Paul and his staff give any thought to weather satellites before proposing the elimination of Commerce?
Now, if Paul has not thought any of this through, it should be noted that this places him in a longstanding libertarian tradition of demanding the Commerce Department’s termination without seeming to know or care about NOAA and weather satellites.
Back in 1997, in his book What It Means to Be a Libertarian, Charles Murray called for eliminating Commerce’s functions, with just one exception: “Restrictions on the export of military technology.” He didn’t mention weather satellites.
In 2009, Reason editor Matt Welch lamented “that the Department of Commerce still exists.” Looking at the department’s website, he could find no evidence of anything valuable, and noted that the site included such “marginalia” as a page on “Today’s Weather.” That prompted me to wonder on my blog whether Welch knew where the weather data widely used by the public actually come from.
Now, Reason senior editor Jacob Sullum celebrates Paul’s plan for its specificity and for forcing critics to come up with their own specific plans. Regarding Commerce, Sullum asks:
Aside from carrying out the decennial “enumeration” mandated by Article I, Section 2, does the Commerce Department do anything that is constitutionally authorized, let alone essential?
Regarding the constitutionality question, Senator and astronaut Harrison Schmitt has made an interesting case for the constitutionality of federal involvement in various science and technology activities, including monitoring weather. However, if there is a genuine problem with constitutionality, I for one recommend amending the Constitution to allow such activities, posthaste.
As for essential, I think weather satellites are essential. Also essential, if libertarians want to be taken seriously, is that they demonstrate some specific knowledge about the agencies they want to abolish.