Category Archives: NASA

How Government Governs Best

Those of us who spend much time discussing politics have heard the saying, government governs best which governs the least. It’s often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but in fact, the origin is the opening paragraph of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Because his words are a good introduction to today’s discussion, I’ll quote that paragraph in full:

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe – “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

The war that he refers to was the Mexican-American War, but it could just as well be any war in our history, especially including those of the present.

But let’s work out exactly what the purpose of government is. Otherwise, we have ourselves a massive answer in violent search of a question. My statement of government’s purpose comes in three parts in order descending from greatest to least:

1. The protection of liberty

The first, foremost, and fundamental purpose of government is to protect the liberties of individuals when they live in groups. We saw last week (26 June 2013) an example of this in the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8. Though the rulings were more limited than I should have liked, they did at least declare the principle that all couples have the right to marry. More gains in that arena will follow in due course.

The idea here is that when people concentrate together, the rights that they are born with run the risk of being trampled by the herd. Just as two roads intersecting require traffic lights to allow for both to cross without damage, we have to have a government that will protect the rights of each of us from the desires of others. Notice that government does not create those rights. It exists to protect what comes before and above itself.

2. Creation of an environment for human excellence

The second function of government is to create and sustain an environment in which human excellence is possible. Human beings achieve great things when they work together. This includes consumer protections that guarantee accurate labelling of products, programs that see to the health of people, and services that provide a functioning transportation and education system. Yes, these cost money and have to be paid for by taxes (but not deficit spending, let us agree), but they enhance the liberties that each citizen is able to exercise, and as long as the tax rate is reasonable and agreed to by popular vote–in our case, for elected representatives–this is consistent with the first principle. In fact, let’s recognize that taxation is required for any government action. Without taxes, we lose even the first purpose.

But again, the idea here is that by creating an environment in which humans can achieve great things, either separately or in groups, government makes possible a broader exercise of the liberties we are born with.

3. Promotion of cultural growth

By culture, I mean the arts, sciences, technology, and other such expressions of human excellence. This differs from the second purpose in that I see a job for government not only to create an environment in which culture can thrive, but also to promote new developments that are unlikely to be achieved first by individuals or private companies. NASA and the Internet are my two favorite examples of this. Without government, space, both cyber and outer, would not have been opened. The rewards were too far off into the future, and the technical difficulties meant that profit might never come.

This third purpose is the one that I see as the most debatable. It is the area most subject to risk, as we have seen with the recent kerfuffle over Solyndra. It also is the most subject to waste. But without risk there is no reward, and I’m willing to accept the chance of some money being scattered to the wind, since, in fact, the better metaphor is casting bread upon the water. Yes, some of it will sink or rot, but much will return to us in unexpected ways.

Those are the three purposes that I see. A representative republic–one in which rights are beyond public opinion and citizens vote on who will lead for a defined term–is my choice of how to go about achieving those purposes.

Now, I need a term for this political philosophy. Libertarian somewhat fits, though people who today identify as such would object to many of the areas in which I see a role for government. Liberal would be a good word, if it hadn’t been corrupted by so many on the left of the American political scene. Progressive has suffered the same fate. To shift the debate from the deep ruts of our current parties, I propose a new word, coming from the ancient Greek word, ἐλευθερία, eleutheria, meaning liberty. I’m naming my political philosophy Eleutherianism.

Now to form a tax-exempt organization and begin raising funds….

Political Software

I’m on a continuing quest to get as far away from Microsoft products as possible. Since I don’t fiddle around with i-Anythings and my telephone is a cuss-worthy box o’parts, getting away from the corporate octopus isn’t easy. Much of the world is managing, however, so there’s hope for humanity.

What I have been able to do is find good, lightweight, and functional programs that do exactly what I need them to do without arguing about it. When I want to defragment my hard-drive in a hurry, MyDefrag does the job. I do most of my writing on OpenOffice software. When Windows Media Player balked at playing what I wanted to watch, I got this.

But the title of this article promised politics, and I’m about to deliver. I look at government programs in a way similar to my take on computers. We citizens don’t exist to serve government. Government exists to work for us.

My favorite example of good government is NASA. Said agency has never had even five percent of the Federal budget, but look at all that it has achieved. And it has done this without preventing others from operating in space. Look at SpaceX and Virgin Galactic for examples. The former of those is now delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Take in contrast the Microsoft-esque attempt at healthcare reform. That massive piece of political software is being rolled out over a period of years. The beta testing has so far given mixed results. And soon, lots of Americans are going to face the bureaucratic equivalent of a pop-up that asks, Are you sure?

I have no objection to government being helpful. But that help should be genuine. It should be effective. And most importantly, it should come with no compulsion.

What I’d like to see, for example, would be a government insurance program such as what I discussed here–in other words, a lightweight program that does only what it claims to do and does that well and without argument.

The problem is that political software developers so often are afflicted with big visions while at the same time lacking in the quality that the best engineers are blessed with–a love of simplicity. Politicians so often operate under the fear that the voters are coming, so they’d better look busy. Many of them have a heartfelt desire to do good and confuse the nature of their desires with the nature of their ideas.

The principle that I’m suggesting here is that when considering the creation or expansion of a government program, we must ask what is the smallest number of actions that will accomplish a worthy goal.

In Memoriam: Neil Armstrong

Late last night (25 August 2012), I received the news that Neil Armstrong has died. My usual approach when writing these memorials is to give a brief reminder of who the person was and then to express my gratitude that such a person lived. This one will be harder to write.

For one thing, who doesn’t know the name, Neil Armstrong? For one moment in 1969, the whole world stopped to watch one man do something extraordinary. There is so much to say about the man and what he did that summary feels impossible. Here’s my attempt:

Armstrong was an iconic American. During the Korean war, twice during training for the Moon landing, and during the actual event, he found himself in situations where a panicky person would have died, but he calmly went about doing his job. He spoke little and talked about himself even less. The act for which he will always be remembered was a bold push into the vast blank space on the map whose only notation was “Here be dragons.”

His family suggests that when we go out at night and see the Moon, we remember Neil Armstrong. That’s a fine sentiment, but I propose a stronger response. It’s been almost forty years since a human being stood on that body. None of us have been to Mars. None of us have left the Solar System. The list of places where we haven’t been is infinite. The best way to remember that man is to push on beyond his footprint.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

You Never Created a Job. . .

How many times have we heard someone say, “X doesn’t deserve to lead because he’s never created a job”? Such a comment gets used also in relation to government in general and to academia. Let’s consider two cases:

1. NASA and the Military space program

It’s an old observation that our space program has created much of the technology that is a part of our modern lives. We can debate some details, but think about the communication that’s possible now. Consider how it’s possible to know exactly where we are by consulting a single gadget. The most obvious contribution is the way in which space has been opened up. This is the result of the national programs of America, Russia, and others.

These days, private companies are taking advantage of these technologies to provide products and services. Remember that space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? A corporate transportation company carried Dr. Floyd into space and to the Moon, and he used a service that looked a lot like Skype to talk to his daughter. All of that is likely in the near future, and the companies that will provide it will have got the underlying technology from scholars and the government.

2. The Internet

And I ain’t talking Al Gore here. The Internet is the creation of DARPA, the military’s research agency, and universities. Since you’re here reading this article on-line, I don’t have to explain the value of their work, nor must I tell you about the many jobs that exist because of it. Jeff Bezos is a smart person, but he’d still be moving paper around in a hedge fund firm if it weren’t for the Ivory Tower and the Gummit.

What do we learn here? Some technologies require decades to mature. Private companies or corporations can’t spend that long and that much money to develop them. Schools and governments have the time. If we deny them the money, we shut off a great deal of potential. At the same time, having established the field, the government especially needs to open it up for everyone to participate and to get out of the way. SOPA and attempts to ban types of content between consenting adults are examples of not letting go.

We can spend our society’s money in many ways. Promoting science and technology has clear, if long term rewards. A society that wishes to thrive must do this.