Who Supports Government Space Programs?

January 2nd, 2012 at 5:56 pm | 16 Comments |

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After quoting from a speech where a Republican presidential candidate praises the space program, Mark Palko writes:

I [Palko] don’t know what the reaction of the crowd was (the reporting wasn’t that detailed) but I’d imagine it was friendly. You can usually get a warm response from a Republican crowd by coming out in favor of manned space exploration which is, when you think about, strange as hell.

If you set out to genetically engineer a program that libertarians ought to object to, you’d probably come up with something like the manned space program. A massive government initiative, tremendously expensive, with no real role for individual initiative. Compared to infrastructure projects the benefits to business are limited. . . . There have been efforts in libertarian-leaning organs (The Wall Street Journal, Reason, John Tierney’s New York Times columns) trying to argue that interplanetary exploration can be done on the cheap. These usually rely heavily on the blatant low-balling of Robert Zubrin . . . but even if we were to accept these numbers, it’s still difficult to reconcile this kind of government program with libertarian values.

We can break this into three questions:

1. Do conservative libertarian Republicans actually support the space program?

2. Is support for the space program stronger among this group than among liberals and Democrats?

3. If the answer to 1 and 2 is Yes, what gives? How can we understand this pattern in the context of the apparent contradictions with anti-government ideology?

Here goes:

1. According to Gallup, 58% of Americans surveyed in 2009 answered Yes to the question, “It is not 40 years since the United States first landed men on the moon. Do you think the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs, or don’t you think so?” The percentage has gradually increased over the past three decades. 60% of respondents think that funding for the space program should be increased or kept at the current level, and “58% of Americans say NASA is doing an excellent (13%) or good (45%) job.”

Gallup reports that, paradoxically (but, unfortunately, unsurprisingly), “The high point in support for current or larger funding levels for NASA was 76% in January 1986, immediately after the space shuttle Challenger disaster.”

The space program is more popular among younger people and among college graduates.

2. We use National Election Study data to examine the correlations among many different issues, including space exploration, in my paper with Delia. The correlation between attitudes on “federal spending on space” with party identification or political ideology is about 0.1. (Just to calibrate, attitudes toward defense spending question is correlated at about 0.3 with party ID and ideology, while a question about school prayer has correlations close to zero.)

3. So, support for the space program does not seem particularly associated with conservative or Republican positions. (It would require further analysis to examine correlation with economically libertarian attitudes but I expect that if someone did the work, he or she would find a low correlation there as well.)

But I do think I know what Palko was getting at. High-tech space exploration, like high-tech military, high-tech nuclear power, high-tech agriculture, and high-tech education, does seem popular among conservative libertarian writers (not just John Tierney, but he’s as good an example as any). On the other side, high-tech solar and wind power, high-tech energy conservation, and high-tech communication and networking seem more popular on the left.

My quick response is that political ideologies are interesting but ultimately you can’t make sense of them: any given person’s views are a many-possibilitied tangle.

But maybe there’s something here. A good start might be this classic bit from P. J. O’Rourke:

We are the Republican Party Reptiles. We look like Republicans, and think like conservatives, but we drive a lot faster and keep vibrators and baby oil and a video camera behind the stack of sweaters on the bedroom closet shelf. I think our agenda is clear. We are opposed to: government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear power, busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N., taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men. We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Nastassia Kinski, Star Wars (and anything else that scares the Russkis), and a firm stand on the Middle East (raze buildings, burn crops, plow the earth with salt, and sell the population into bondage).

There are thousands of people in America who feel this way, especially after three or four drinks. If all of us would unite and work together, we could give this country … well, a real bad hangover.

It you think the U.S. is great, that leads to supporting a strong military. And the space program has a strong military connection. As does military power. And this fits in with a libertarian attitude, to the extent that it is focused on the international expansion of capitalism, and to the extent that military contractors are seen as having the virtues attributed to private business.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Geprodis

    I’m a usually a Libertarian but not when it comes to space exploration. You can’t explore space at the local or state level. You can’t really leave space exploration to private enterprise because there just isn’t enough reward for the risk.

    You can argue that space exploration isn’t important or not worth the money. Personally though I would pay more in taxes just to support the space program. Completely worthwhile to me.

    • sweatyb

      You can’t invade foreign countries at the local or state level. You can’t really leave nation building to private enterprise because there just isn’t enough reward for the risk.

      Obviously, grand enterprises require a strong and wealthy central government. Libertarianism is fundamentally opposed to such an entity.

      Of course, libertarianism is often incoherent.

      • Graychin

        Libertarians oppose whatever the government does. Except when they don’t.

        “Incoherent” is a great description.

      • Geprodis

        I’m a libertarian but I’m not a fanatic about it. I just think the government should not start wars and should not spend us into oblivion.

        The Space Program has been subsisting on crumbs since the early 70′s, and I think cutting 20 billion from the military and giving it to the space program is the right course.

        I’m libertarian leaning..there…does that help clear it up for you 2 (Sweatyb, Graychin)?

        I can’t remember, are you 2 both Obama supporters? I usually see you calling Ron Paul a racist, not sure what your political ideas are.

  • nameless

    You are conflating concepts “libertarian” and “conservative Republican”. Those two are quite far removed from each other. There isn’t a single presidential candidate in the Republican party whose attitudes would be accurately described as libertarian (Ron Paul has been successfully masquerading as a libertarian, but, in reality, he’s just a tenther). True libertarians are in favor of small government, minimal army, and isolationism. Actual right-wingers are in favor of small government, large defense spending, having more nukes and aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined, and, more generally, acting as a world’s policeman.

  • Houndentenor

    I find it odd to see conservative libertarian and Republican used in a string like that. One of those things is not like the others, if I am allowed to quote from a tv show that receives federal funding.

    I live near NASA. On the nearby Republican campaign office door is a sign (I’m sorry I can’t quote it exactly) that says that they need to defeat Obama to keep NASA. I don’t have any idea what that is based on. Maybe someone can clue me in on why anyone would believe Obama plans to zero out NASA funding. Of course it’s hilarious to constantly hear people who work for NASA talk like libertarians. But cognitive dissonance is rampant these days everywhere.

  • Raskolnik

    The space program gave us microcomputers (and in general miniaturization on scales previously unimaginable), Teflon, Velcro, GPS, and many other things we take for granted every day. Even without these kinds of peripheral and unforeseeable benefits, the space program is a driver of innovation and provider of the highest-tech jobs. And then there’s the human element, the need for a sense of national purpose and an outlet for the highest ideals of human civilization — exploring the unknown, discovering what lies beyond.

  • sweatyb

    You’d get way more traffic if you mention Ron Paul in the title.

  • mlindroo

    Well, I spent a lot of time debating space policy in the 1990s! I broadly concur with Gelman’s statement about the weak correlation between space activism and political ideology. IIRC, most public opinion surveys ten years ago found women and minorities to *somewhat* more sceptical about the value of human spaceflight. An aggressive man-in-space program probably appeals to “national greatness” Gaullist conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and Newt Gingrich. But overall, NASA is largely a bipartisan issue and the dividing line in Congress is related to regional porkbarrel issues rather than GOP vs. Dem..

    The mainstream advocacy organizations (National Space Society, Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society, the Planetary Society) tend to be non-ideological. The only exception are hardcore space activists, who *do* tend to regard themselves as libertarians. Examples include occasional NRO Corner contributer Rand Simberg and Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds. These folks usually oppose NASA, though … they believe free enterprise would be more efficient and we’d have cheap access to space for ordinary people if not for Apollo and the Space Shuttle boondoggles. Few Republican Representatives or Senators agree with their point of view, though — they only care about NASA jobs in Texas or Florida.


  • Nanotek

    Kennedy had it right …

    “”We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”"

  • nitrat

    We are a nation that came into being because of explorers and pioneers.
    Space is…well, the final frontier.
    It is our nature, in our genes, to explore.
    When we stop doing it, we will have lost our real American exceptionalism.

    And, to think we chose Iraq and Afghanistan over our space program is an obscenity.

    Thanks, again, SCOTUS.

    • Traveler

      No kidding. A lot of what the POGers did do, and continue to do, cannot be expressed anything but obscene. The fact that people still buy crap from those sh*theads defies comprehension. Including our dear host. Such cognitive dissonance.

  • jdd_stl1

    Is it possible that conservatives would support space exploration because
    we have to beat the Chinese? We beat the Russians to the moon.
    If we bow out now and China goes to Mars, it would be seen as a huge
    failure for the US.

  • jakester

    Considering the trillions wasted elsewhere, a little boost to the space program, would be a great idea. It is actually something to be proud of with side benefits too.

  • NRA Liberal

    The cliche Rand-reading libertarian is, in fact, a tech nerd. Of course he (it’s always a he) loves the space program.

    The number of people who work the logic of their ideology out to the last jot and tittle is very small. For most libertarian Republican, “small government” means “get rid of spending on poor and colored folks”, not cool rockets and such.