Of all we do as human beings, you might think space travel would be sure to elude a characterization fit for the 18th century. And yet as billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos launched into sub-orbit, they were propelled by Bernard Mandeville, a philosopher and economist born in 1670 and best remembered by his satirical work, The Fable of the Bees. Published to scandal in 1714, the thesis of the tale is spelled out in its titular subhead: “private vices, publick benefits.”
Mandeville argues our pursuit of self-interest, of vice, produces salutary public outcomes. He concludes the fable by claiming
Bare Virtue can’t make Nations live
In Splendor; they, that would revive
A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.
If that sounds reminiscent of subsequent European thought, it’s because it is. Mandeville influenced, among others, the economist Adam Smith, who gave us the metaphor of the invisible hand of the market—a sort of restatement of Mandeville’s fable. Historian Edward Hundert writes that Mandeville’s “now notorious thesis” is “contemporary society is an aggregation of self-interested individuals necessarily bound to one another neither by their shared civic commitments nor their moral rectitude, but, paradoxically, by the tenuous bonds of envy, competition and exploitation.”
If there’s a better way to describe the billionaire “space race,” I haven’t come across it. You might as well call the contest The Fable of the Bezos and the Branson. And Musk, too.
The most common defence of the space race is the hypothesis that it will “benefit us all,” as Matt Gurney argues in the National Post. The technologies developed by companies “will be to our collective benefit, because this technology is here to stay.” The results speak for themselves as “Blue Origin and SpaceX are not just duplicating the accomplishments of the national space agencies of decades ago. They’re improving on them, making them safer, more reliable and vastly less expensive…. The private-sector space technology could easily utterly surpass anything being developed by any national agency. It could be argued that it already has.”
These technologies could be useful to us all, the argument goes. Gurney points out, as others have, that “If we truly became a space-faring society, we could shift power generation and resource extraction largely off the Earth’s surface.” Perhaps. I doubt it will happen, especially within the time we have to save ourselves from climate disaster.
Hoping for material good to come from a private space race is, at best, a long and risky bet being made by the self-interest of billionaires driven by ego and the vampire’s lust to feed—that is to say, the profit motive.
There is no public virtue in the space race vice. Billionaires can go to space because states have already been there. Billionaires can go to space because of public infrastructure, state-sponsored technologies, and the wealth they have extracted from their workers and society at large. Now, at a time when climate change threatens humankind, we have outsourced space exploration to private interests with thin, if any, lines of accountability to the public on whose shoulders they stand, or, rather, on whose necks they kneel.
The private wealth of a small handful of individuals that makes private space travel possible, extracted from the many, is a currency and also a tool of power. This currency and power lets them dictate what is to be done, now scaled up to the level of civilization itself.
To return to Mandeville, we have taken to an extreme the assumption that private vices—or interests—lead to public goods: by placing the future of our civilization in the hands of an increasingly wealthy, plutocratic, and unaccountable few whose interests routinely run contrary to our own. As the currency is hoarded by the few and their power grows, the public is left with less and less capacity to direct the public affairs that affect us all as it conditions our very chances of survival. One wonders, for instance, who pays for the externalities, such as the carbon pollution from space industry and the infrastructure underwriting existence.
In short, the billionaire space race is a private vanity project bundled with a long-shot bet disguised as “one giant leap for mankind,” and supplemented with some vague hope of industrial usefulness. Moreoever, it’s undertaken not just at cost, but at opportunity cost. Luke Savage, writing in Jacobin, calls it “a uniquely American disgrace,” while pointing out:
People in the world’s richest country are quite literally going hungry and the economy is somehow creating new billionaires while making the existing ones even richer. Seven million people are about to face eviction and the wealthiest man in human history just bought himself a personal yacht that costs the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, $500 million now being basically pocket change for a guy like Jeff Bezos.
Just weeks ago, a town in British Columbia broke Canada’s heat record three days in a row and then burned to the ground. Fires. Floods. Droughts. These are typical headlines for us now. The Economist, not particularly known for its radicalism, is warning of a “3 degree world” in which there is “no safe place.” Every dollar spent on these boondoggles could be better spent helping people here and now—especially those who suffer most at the hands of the capitalist system that has made Bezos and Branson and Musk obscenely wealthy. Every dollar spent on a risky bet made in the interests of the wealthiest class, justified by the trickle-down theory of possible fringe benefits, is a dollar not spent on serving humankind. And that’s a scandal and a shame.
The billionaire space race may have yielded something of use, however. Writing in the New Republic, Timothy Noah argues “Jeff Bezos, space Marxist” has “revived the surplus theory of value.” He reminds us that profit is the product of capitalists extracting surplus value from labour, with worker compensation “set at a subsistence level.” Critiques of private space endeavours rooted in a Marxist analysis of capitalism cut through the moon-eyed space love and get to the point: these projects are inherently exploitative, whatever they yield, which may well be nothing but a boon to the egos of a handful of aging men who, one suspects, are staring down their own mortality a bit more day by day. It would be cheaper for us all if they’d find Jesus. But, alas, here we are.
In Mandeville’s fable, the bee hive suffers without vice, a warning reminiscent of the self-pitying fallacy of the Galt’s Gulch crowd, the imagined elite without whom society cannot function, a product of the warped mind of Ayn Rand. Today, the fact is that private vice has scaled to become an existential threat. The long-term interest of those who wish to survive, of those who wish to see humanity live sustainably, is bound up with collective goods that require the distribution of resources and powers to the many, who can then make effective decisions in the public interest. Those decisions require that we circumscribe private wealth and power, especially that of the ultra-wealthy whose fortunes disproportionately shape our lives and our future.
Neither Branson nor Bezos nor any other individual should have the capacity to direct a private company to engage in outlandish ventures such as those we’ve seen of late because no individual ought to be permitted to extract such value from the rest of us that they can afford to undertake such outlandish ventures. The promise of some potential future payoff, some trickle-down longshot, is moot in the face of the fact that billionaires are a policy failure and ought not to exist in the first place. It turns out, then, that Mandeville was on to something when in his tale some unseen force was “with indignation mov’d” and committed to “he’d rid/The bawling hive of fraud.” We ought to do the same. Our hive depends upon it.
David Moscrop is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. He is a political commentator for television, radio, and print media. He is also the host of Open To Debate, a current affairs podcast. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia.