The beginning is mostly factual. The Planetary Society wants high public spending on space exploration. It has Europa in its sights. I vigorously agree. Bob's position is that we should "privatize the whole enterprise".
"Bastiat’s famous admonition to look at both the seen and the unseen applies just as much to grandiose space projects as it does to, say, sports stadiums: It’s not enough to ask, “Would humans benefit from a mission to Europa, if it were a free gift?” Rather, the question is, “Would humans benefit more from a mission to Europa, versus the best possible alternative use of the resources such a mission would require?”"This really makes me wonder precisely what trade-off Bob thinks proponents like me are thinking of. The whole argument is that it is a beneficial use of resources relative to alternative uses. Nobody that I'm aware of has claimed that such endeavors are costless. But how do they compare to many other budget items? How does it compare to a future where space exploration is solely private? That's the question people are talking about. Instead of addressing that, we get opportunity cost explained again.
The next paragraph is really disappointing:
"All of the usual problems with socialist central planning–brilliantly explained by Ludwig von Mises and elaborated by Friedrich Hayek–kick in when it comes to space exploration. Remember, it took the brilliant and brave iconoclast Richard Feynman to get to the bottom of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. And less disastrous but more ridiculous, in 1999 NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because two different teams working on the project had an English units / metric system miscommunication."So this is not the Mises/Hayek insight on central planning at all. The claim is not that technical problems are unobtainable by public planners. Quite the contrary, it's pretty standard to highlight Soviet technical prowess. The Mises/Hayek point is that a central planner can't make the trade-offs necessary for a functioning economy because it cannot aggregate private information on scarcity, cost, and value the way the price system can. Ironically, the technical issues were in the hands of private contractors for Apollo, Challenger, and every other achievement of the space program. I don't point this out to fault private companies. I, of course, am as vigorous a supporter of private space efforts as I am of public space efforts. It's simply to point out that the tragedies Bob raises have nothing at all to do with Mises and Hayek. (Unless the argument is that a private effort wouldn't hire such problematic contractors???... but something tells me that's not where he's going with this).
Much of the rest of the post makes an excellent case for private space efforts. The only problem is that by failing to engage the externality argument for public space exploration at all Bob presents a false choice. I have yet to come across a single advocate of a public space effort that wouldn't agree with this from Bob:
"There are plenty of commercial applications of modest space exploration efforts, including obvious things like placing satellites into orbit but also more exotic possibilities such as space tourism and mining asteroids. Pure profit-and-loss calculations from retail sales don’t have to be the sole driver, either; the X Prize showed the potential for spurring innovation with a relatively modest amount of donated money."But that's not the point. Or at least it's not the point that Bob is trying to make here, which is that there's a problem with public space exploration. Let's review - first he reminds us we need to think of opportunity costs which I think everyone agrees on and is definitely not a case against public space programs. Second, he botches the socialist calculation debate which even if accurately rendered is not an argument against a public space program. Third, he makes some good points about valuable private efforts, which is not an argument against a public space program.
So what is the argument?
"In conclusion, my guess is that The Planetary Society’s suggestion that citizens of the United States should effectively spend (in their role as current and future taxpayers) $1.5 billion per year on planetary research is absurd".His "guess".
Look, that's fair enough. This is not a case where we have hard data to make these assessments. Everyone is making judgments based on a sense they have about the human future and I'm no different. But let's not pretend that opportunity cost, the feasibility of socialism, or the benefits of private exploration have a thing to do with the argument here. We all have this foundation. The question is, is there a reason to think private investment is not optimal. If so, then we can accept the logic of Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, and the X prize and still support a public program. If not, then Bob's position holds completely independent of Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, and the X prize.
Finally, there's the Firefly thing. It lingers in the background of the post, but let's be clear about one thing. The Independents were a loose federation of self-governed planets that resisted tyranny. They were not anarcho-capitalists like Bob. They were federalist liberals like me. And Joss Whedon is no Robert Heinlein (although Heinlein is all over the map relative to the view of him that most libertarians have).