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The gap between moral wisdom and scientific knowledge has been a problem since the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century. Immanuel Kant, writing in the late 1700’s, struggled mightily with this very question: How can man bridge the intellectual chasm between scientific knowledge (the realm of law and necessity) and moral knowledge (the realm of freedom and choice) without sacrificing the integrity of one or the other? Hegel, Marx, and the modern moral philosophers have all lived in the shadow of this dilemma, and the crisis of modern culture reflects man’s failure to resolve it. The responses to this dilemma, as a rule, take one or the other of two forms, symbolized by Arthur Koestler as the Commissar on the one hand, and the Yogi on the other.
The Commissar is enraptured with science and technology; he is confident that scientific planning in proper hands can so alter man’s environment as to bring about a new earth and a new mankind. The Yogi takes the opposite tack of disengagement from “the world,” laying stress on each man cultivating his own garden. Find inner peace, he urges, and the external world will take care of itself. His assumption is that science and technology are neutral, that developing from their inner imperatives they will eventually find their own benevolent level.
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Mr. Wicker, unfortunately, made a great leap of faith when he began to compare our heavenly achievement with our supposed capabilities for solving more earthly tasks. He was not alone in this leap. Editorial after editorial echoed it, and I single him out only because he is widely read and generally regarded as one of the superior liberal pundits. He makes the leap seem so plausible: “So the conclusion that enlightened men might draw is that if the same concentration of effort and control could be applied to some useful earthly project, a similar success might be obtained.” He recommends a vast program of publicly-owned housing construction, say, some 26 million new units by 1980.
Flora Lewis’ column was far more optimistic; her horizons for mankind’s planning capabilities are apparently much wider. “If the moon can be grasped, why not the end of hunger, of greed, of warfare, of cruelty?” She admits that there are problems: “They seem provocatively within our new capacities and yet maddeningly distant. We are told it is only lack of will that frustrates these achievements, too.” Nature is boundless, apparently; only our “lack of will” prevents us from unlocking the secrets of paradise and ending the human condition as we know it. This is the messianism of technological planning. It is basic to the thinking of a large segment of our intellectuals, and the success of the Apollo flights has brought it out into the open.
Mr. Wicker wisely set for our government a limited goal. Miss Lewis does not necessarily limit the task to government planning alone, but it is obvious that she is basing her hopes on a technological feat that was essentially a statist project. At this point, several questions should be raised. First, should the state have used some $25 billions of coerced taxes in order to send two men to the moon’s surface? Would men acting in a voluntary fashion have expended such a sum in this generation? In short, was it worth the forfeiting of $25 billions worth of alternative uses for the money? Second, given Mr. Wicker’s plans, could we not ask the same question? Is the construction of public housing, and the use of scarce resources involved in such construction, on a priority scale that high in the minds of the American public? Would a noninflationary tax cut not be preferable?3 It is typical of socialistic thinkers to point to emergency spending (e.g., a war) or some statist rocket program and recommend a transfer of funds from one branch of the state’s planning bureaucracy to another. I have never heard them recommend a reduction of spending by the state. Spending precedents set in war time, like “temporary” taxes, seem to become permanent. Finally, in Miss Lewis’ example, is the mere application of the techniques of applied science sufficient to end warfare and cruelty? Or could it be, as the Apostle James put it, that our wars come from the hearts of men? Conversion, in and of itself, may not redeem technology, but can Miss Lewis be so certain that technology can redeem mankind?
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A LEAP OF FAITH
Therefore, to take a leap of faith from some particular instance of a “successful” government project—success defined as the operationally satisfactory completion of a certain unquestioned goal—to the realm of economic planning involves a faith far greater than anything imagined by the medieval scholastics. Yet Dr. Irving Bengelsdorf, a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times, thinks that “there may be hope” along this line of thinking, in spite of the difficulties inherent in any computerized quantification of qualitative personal preferences. He states the problem well; he cannot show how his answer is linked operationally with the problem he states:
In contrast to the novel and uncluttered venture of getting to the moon, [an] uninhabited, non-social, non-political moon, the problems of society are exceedingly complex to solve because any solution demands that, people have to change their daily ways of life, their interactions with other people. This is difficult to do. For, from birth, people already come overlaid with traditional prejudices, encrusted with hoary cultures, and swaddled in ancient customs. And these are hard to change.
But, there may be hope. Both the Apollo 11 flight and the Manhattan Project of World War II show that once a clear goal has been set, a vast, complex project involving large numbers of people with different training and skills working together can achieve a solution.
Between the first paragraph and the second lies a social revolution. Also present in the gap is the unstated assumption that we can reduce the complexities of society to “a clear goal,” which is precisely the problem governments have not learned to solve. I am at a loss to see how a wartime bomb project or a trip to the moon indicate anything except the amazing capacity for spending that governments possess.
Barbara Ward, one of the most respected Establishment thinkers in Britain, and former editor of The Economist, has taken Buckminster Fuller’s spaceship analogy and has turned it into an effective neo-Fabian propaganda device: “The most rational way of considering the whole race today is to see it as the ship’s crew of a single spaceship on which all of us, with a remarkable combination of security and vulnerability, are making our pilgrimage through infinity.” [. . .]
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The problem with all of this “spaceship reasoning” is that it assumes as solved those fundamental problems that need solving in order to make possible the spaceship analogy. The thing which strikes me as ironic is that the language of the spaceship involves a chain of command approach to the solution of human problems. Those humanitarian intellectuals who decry the petty military dictatorships in underdeveloped nations want to impose a massive system of command over the whole earth. That is what the call to world government implies. The spaceship analogy necessarily views society as a vast army. Yet for some reason, Hayek’s identical conclusion about the implications of socialist planning is invariably rejected as absurd. It is the mentality of the militarist. Miss Ward even is willing to admit that our experiences in wartime helped to create the foundation of modern economic policy:
Thus, not by theory or dogma but largely by war-induced experience, the Western market economies have come to accept the effectiveness and usefulness of a partnership between public and private activity. . . . but there is now no question of exclusive reliance on any one instrument or any one method. The pragmatic market economies have worked out their own evolving conceptions of public and private responsibility and the result is the dynamic but surprisingly stable mixed economy of the Western world.
THE CHAOS OF NONECONOMICS
I would have put it a different way. I would have pointed to the signs of our contemporary system’s increasing inefficiency, corruption, and extralegal practices which we more usually associate with those warfare economies from which she says we borrowed our planning techniques. What we have created is non-economics, and Miss Ward proclaims the benefits of such a system:
But, on the whole, in economics the Western world can move from position to position with little sense of contradiction and incompatibility. We had no very fixed views before so we do not have to bother too much about what we believe now. It is a considerable source of strength.
This, then, is “reason, spaceship style.” It is the triumph of intellectual chaos, and it is inevitably recreating the economy in its own image.
GROUNDING THE SHIP
Dr. William G. Pollard, a physicist who was a part of the Manhattan Project, has written a little book which tries to undergird the spaceship analogy with a theological framework. His theology is radical, but he is honest in seeing the purpose of the Apollo flights as being ultimately religious. He thinks it marks the end of the era of science-worship. Diminishing marginal returns are about to set in:
Sending men to the moon and bringing them back in 1969 may prove to be from the perspective of the twentieth century the central symbol of the golden age of science in the twenty-first. Like the great pyramids of Egypt or the lofty cathedrals of medieval Europe, this feat will stand out as a peak expression of the spirit of the golden age; the maximum economic investment which a great civilization could make in a feat which served no useful purpose other than making manifest the lofty height to which the spirit of an age could rise. It will not be worth repeating except perhaps by Russia for the purpose of sharing in its glory. Thereafter, even more massive applications of science and technology to basic human needs will have become so urgently necessary that no further diversion of available talent and resources to manned space flights can be permitted.
We can hope that he is correct, but who knows for certain? The government was so successful, as it usually is, in achieving a feat “which served no useful purpose” other than its own glory, that we may have more of the same. But this much should be clear: the analogy of spaceship earth is more than an analogy; it is a call to religious commitment. The call is to faith in centralized planning.
At the beginning of this essay, I pointed to the dual theories of regeneration, symbolized by the Yogi and the Commissar. They feed on each other, take in each other’s intellectual washing, so to speak. If we are to confront the mythology of spaceship earth, it must be in terms of a rival moral philosophy, one which has social and economic implications, as well as technological implications. We must deny the validity of any vision of man as central planner, a little god who would arrange in an omniscient fashion the lives of all men in all the spheres of their existence, as if we were some permanent military crew. We must acknowledge the validity of the late C. S. Lewis’ warning in The Abolition of Man that when we hear men speaking of “man’s taking control of man,” we should understand that it implies certain men taking control of all the others.
When men seek to divinize the state, they succeed merely in creating hell on earth. The Christian church fought this point out with the Roman Emperors, both pagan and Arian. The state may not claim to be God’s exclusive or even chief representative on earth.”’ The theology of spaceship earth would have us return to the religious political theory of the ancient world, all in the name of progressive technology and planning.
The astronauts are back on earth. We must seek to keep them here. It is time to ground our spaceship programs, both interplanetary and domestic. Let the captains go down with their ideological ship. There are better ways of allocating our scarce resources than in constructing spaceship earth.