On July 20, 1969, an estimated 600 million viewers around the world watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
I was not one of them.
I was attending R. J. Rushdoony's weekly Sunday evening Bible study. The moon walk was scheduled to take place before the meeting began. The family that hosted the meeting turned on the television. We viewed a blurred image of an empty moonscape. The camera was ready to record Neil Armstrong's first step onto the moon's surface.
We waited. And waited. Nothing.
After possibly ten minutes, Rushdoony said, "Let's begin the meeting." Someone dutifully turned off the television, and Rushdoony gave his lecture.
After the lecture, someone turned on the TV. The great event was over.
I have always agreed with Rushdoony. Our time was better spent studying the Bible.
The "put a man on the moon in this decade" program was the most spectacular and most beloved peacetime boondoggle in the history of bloated government programs. It achieved nothing of lasting value for the taxpayers — nothing that they would have paid for voluntarily.
The Apollo program was funded by tax money extracted from Americans who would otherwise have spent their money on unmemorable goods and services. These goods and services would have been higher on their list of priorities than the Apollo project. That is why it took coercion to fund the program.
The Apollo project was like a huge fireworks display. It was impressive at the time, but it is long gone. Even the tapes of the event are long gone. NASA erased them. No one knows why. What we see today are enhanced versions of video broadcasts.
To assess the value of the moon program, we should apply Frédéric Bastiat's principle of the fallacy of the thing not seen. Except for those of us at Rushdoony's Bible study, Americans with television sets saw the first moon walk. What no one saw were the products and services that would have been offered for sale from 1961 to 1969, had the government not taxed the public to fund the moon program. What inventions would have been discovered? We cannot know.
This inherent and inescapable ignorance regarding the paths not taken subsidizes all government programs. Voters do not count the costs of these projects because they do not count the costs of the benefits foregone.
A program is objective and visible. "There it stands!" The costs are subjective, scattered across the entire taxpaying population, and ignored. In the government's cost-benefit analysis, there are no costs worth counting. There is only the grand collective benefit offered by the government: "There it stands."
Unless, like the I-35 bridge in Minnesota, it collapses.
The fallacy of the thing not seen makes the moon program look like a net positive value in retrospect. We can view the enhanced but unofficial images of a salaried bureaucrat walking on the moon.
That official uttered the most expensive incomplete sentence in the history of mankind: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." Audio experts ever since have searched for the missing "a" in "a man" as if it were the Holy Grail. This was "One mangled sentence for a man; one memorable boondoggle for mankind."
The 1969 moon walk was a spectacular PR stunt that has generated lifetime funding for NASA. Most of the cost of funding NASA that followed the moon program should be retroactively tacked onto the budget for the moonwalk program. The costs have been — I cannot resist — astronomical.
The NASA space program has always hosted obscure outer space experiments that the public perceptively ignores. These are justifications for the program: their supposed scientific value. The value of these experiments is analogous to the value of compulsory physical education departments in tax-funded high schools, which are in fact official justifications for hiring coaches to win after-school games. "Boola-boola; moolah-moolah."
The finest illustration of the value of the entire moon walk program was Alan Shepard's 1971 golf ball stunt. He smuggled a No. 6 golf club and a golf ball onto Apollo 14. Just before the lift-off back to the orbiting Apollo spacecraft, Shepard hit the golf ball "miles and miles," as he later put it. This retroactively converted the electric cart that the two astronauts drove on the moon's surface into the most expensive golf cart in history.
Most Americans can recall only Armstrong's first step and mangled sentence. If they recall anything else about the moon walks, it is Shepard's golf ball stunt.
The total cost of the Apollo program was about $25 billion, or about $170 billion in 2009 dollars. The program matched the definition of commercialism: something done spectacularly that should not have been done at all. I said so in 1969. I have not changed my mind.
As far as I'm concerned, the best thing to come out of Armstrong's moon walk was Steve Gillette's song, "Mr. O'Reilly." It was not worth $100 billion in taxpayer dollars, but it does at least offer something of enduring social value.
July 20, 2009
Copyright © 2009 Gary North