Note to Steve Nielson, you do not need the permission of the President of the United States to go to Mars.
In the CNN/YouTube Republican debate on November 28th, Steve Nielson asked if any of the candidates would sign a pledge to the Mars Society to send an American to Mars by 2020. Being the flavor of the month and a big government Republican, Mike Huckabee got to deliver the first non-answer. Governor Huckabee enumerated the benefits of space exploration while remaining noncommittal on which projects he would fund. Tom Tancredo got to respond and play the traditional Republican. Still his answer focused on our inability to pay for a trip to Mars. It would have be a pleasant change of pace if someone pointed out that the President doesn’t have the authority to send anyone to Mars and that Steve doesn’t need to ask permission if he wants to go to Mars.
The problem with the government funding space research is that all of us have to agree that space exploration is a wise way to spend our money. It is hard to imagine that all of us will value space exploration in the same way. So the government in its infinite wisdom compromises on what gets funded by spending inadequate amounts on everyone’s priorities. The reason the amount is always inadequate is that there is a finite supply of wealth while there is an infinite supply of worthy ideas to fund. No amount of taxes or printing of money can satisfy the demand of good intentions.
When everyone endeavors to get everyone else to pay for their desires, nobody endeavors toward their own goals. This means that the person fulfilling your desires is not paid by you. So while Steve wants to go to Mars, and the Mars Society surely has a plan to make it happen, they will have to petition the government to make it happen. The government will hire contractors to build space ships and this will all take a very long time because every year the government will have to renegotiate what it is willing to spend on a trip to Mars. If the Mars Society is not happy with the progress or the quality of the work, they can complain to the government but not to the contractor directly. The contractors have little incentive to provide outstanding quality or value. In fact, most contracts are narrowly written and provide incentive for the contractor to spend resources protecting themselves.
The activity the Mars Society is engaged in is called rent seeking. It is the practice of using the government to coerce everyone else to pay for things you desire. Unfortunately, to get everyone else to buy you what you want, you need to help buy everyone else what they want. And they want everything.
Now if the Mars Society is serious about going to Mars, they would form a corporation so individuals of like mind could pool their funds and finance the trip. They would also petition the government to get out of their way by repealing laws that will make it difficult to achieve their goal such as securities laws, labor laws, air space laws, ad nauseum. This way they could control the time frame, engineering, and goals of the project. In other words, the people that truly care about the venture can make the decisions instead of consulting the rest of us.
The founders knew this. They knew that it was up to each of us to pursue our own dreams. They knew the dangers of forcing everyone to pay for everyone else’s dream. That is why they created a government with limited powers. It is too bad that in a crowded presidential field, there is only one candidate that understands this.