Space, Frontiers, and Liberty


rocketI grew up reading stories from the Golden Age of science fiction. Heinlein and Asimov probably played a greater role in shaping my personal philosophy, and my attitude toward liberty and individualism, than did Hayek and Locke. The stories that have stuck with me are the likes of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which makes a stirring case for individualists and freedom of association that still resonates with me today.

These early pioneers of science fiction struck a chord, not just for their philosophy, but also because of their passionate defense of the idea of frontiers. The history of human civilization has been defined by the pressure of central authorities driving enterprising and non-conformist individuals to the fringes, to seek pastures new beyond the horizon. It was that pressure that drove the Norwegian settlers of Iceland, and the original American colonists. And it drove Americans westward when their own home-grown governments became too stifling.

The wild frontier has acted for centuries as a vital pasture for the cause of liberty. As one area becomes enclosed and civilized, new opportunities arise. That balance, between a civilization that can be reached and whose technology can be harnessed and a wilder country, protected basic liberties and continuously renewed the pride in the idea of liberty, and was both a safety valve for and check against centralizing tyranny.

As the American frontier was closed and the west completely won, there was nowhere else to go. Then the space race came along. And while it was driven by two competing governments, it captured the public imagination about a new sort of frontier adventure. It was that sense of adventure that the science fiction authors of the Golden Age really tapped. They could see and articulate the sense of growing government control of people’s daily lives. States on both sides of the Iron Curtain were getting progressively bigger, more sophisticated, and more impersonal. Space, in all its boundless vastness, is the sort of frontier that can be explored forever.

Unfortunately, the hopes for mankind to stretch out and colonize other worlds came apart. The Space Race lost steam and the technical issues with such endeavors proved to be far greater than had been dreamed. NASA barely made any efforts toward long-term space colonization, and has even shuttered the shuttle program.

Thankfully, the free market has taken over. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have been filling the gap where governments have stepped aside, and are on the cusp of producing private space travel. What this could mean for the future is anyone’s guess. But for now we are seeing the first glimmers of hope in a moribund field. Yuri Milner’s recent announcement of his plan to develop small interstellar spacecraft, a plethora of private efforts to reach Mars, and privatized space shipping would all have been called impossible just a few years ago. Yet now they are slowly inching toward reality. Many of the current plans will no doubt fail, and many of these private enterprises will collapse. But that goes with the territory of blazing a new trail.

I believe space travel and settling other planets, like Mars, represent a critical part of extending the cause of liberty. As technology and abundance make people complacent, they lose the spark that galvanizes them to defend their fundamental freedoms. They choose comfort over challenge. Space offers an opportunity for real adventure into a frontier ungoverned by powerful governments. That sense of adventure may be the necessary catalyst to inspire a new flowering of liberty for humanity.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.