Thursday, February 28, 2013

Public Funding for Space Development

Government Funding for Space Development

This article concerns the case for the public funding of space development - a case that even a Republican should accept.

The main case is quite simple. Clearly it qualifies as national defense to protect the nation from an asteroid impact. It would be odd at best to argue that public funding can be legitimately spent in protecting the country from a missile launched by a foreign government, but not one launched by nature.

There are certain principles in play that argue for the use of public funds to provide for the common defense. The main argument concerns the difficulty in establishing a national defense that protects just those who pay for it, while leaving those who live next door undefended. A fire department can say, "We will not risk saving your house because you did not pay your dues," but the provider of an anti-missile defense cannot help but protect non-payers and payers alike.

In economics, this is known as the free-rider problem. The people who will get the benefit even if they do not pay have little incentive to pay. Their small contribution will not determine whether or not such a system is built, or whether or not their house will be protected. Consequently, there is little incentive to contribute.

To get around this free-rider problem, national defense is treated as a public good. Everybody - or everybody who has a surplus that they can share - is forced to pay "a fair amount" to make sure that national defense is not underfunded. We may dispute what a fair amount is - an equal dollar value for each person, a proportional amount of income, a proportional amount of property, a greater percentage by those with the most income reflecting the diminishing marginal value of their surplus dollars. However, regardless of the specifics, the principle is that the government forces people to make a contribution through taxes to prevent the underfunding brought about by the free rider problem.

The same argument apples to providing for a defense from criminals. A rapist, caught and confined to where they can do no harm, is a benefit for (nearly) everybody. However, it is a benefit whether one pays for it or not. This, too, generates a free rider problem. People have an incentive not to ay and simply harvest the benefits that come from the benefits of others. To ensure that police protection is properly funded, everybody is forced to contribute whether they want to or not.

Protecting the country from a spaced-based threat faces exactly the same free rider problem that we find in national defense. It is just the type of project that would tend to be under-funded as each individual sought to ride for free on the contributions made by those around them.

In fact, this applies to the scientific understanding of all forms of natural disasters. Protecting people from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, sea-level rise, tsunamis, plagues, and tornados also suffers from a free-rider problem comparable to national defense. The government's responsibility to provide for the common defense applies equally to a defense from space-based and other natural (and global man-made) disasters.

The widespread destruction of a city when a hurricane breaches a levy is as much a legitimate cause for government concern as the flooding of a city when a terrorist breaches a levy.

It is important here to recognize that the space program provides protection from things other than space-based threat. Space-based weather monitoring - warning people of hurricane and other forms of extreme weather in time to save lives and property - has already provided a benefit far in excess of its cost. It also helps to inform us of the threat of global warming, and the climatic changes we can expect in certain parts of the world in time to avoid the greatest costs.

The national defense budget of for 2013 exceeds $500 billion. Republicans themselves embrace the arguments that at least some federal spending on a project such as this is legitimate and important. All of the arguments justifying a public national defense are applicable to providing for a public natural defense.

Of course, not everything that NASA spends money on can be defended using this argument. In fact, not everything NASA spends money on can be defended.

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