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Hayek on Space

While traveling this past week, I was finally able to get into reading Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, which has been sitting forlorn on my book pile for four years. Immediately, I discovered something of relevance to space tourism — an extended discussion on what are nowadays called “early adopters”, which answers well those who deride space tourism as a frivolous hobby of the rich:

[T]he new things will often become available to the greater part of the people only because for some time they have been the luxuries of the few…A large part of the expenditure of the rich, though not intended for that end, thus serves to defray the cost of the experimentation with the new things that, as a result, can later be made available to the poor…What today may seem extravagance or even waste, because it is enjoyed by the few and even undreamed of by the masses, is payment for the experimentation with a style of living that will eventually be available to many. The range of what will be tried and later developed, the fund of experience that will become available to all, is greatly extended by the unequal distrubution of present benefits; and the rate of advance will be greatly increased if the first steps are taken long before the majority can profit from them. Many of the improvements would indeed never become a possibility for all if they had not long before been available to some. If all had to wait for better things until they could be provided for all, that day would in many instances never come. Even the poorest today owe their relative material well-being to the results of past inequality.

Hard to believe that an economics treatise from 1960 could have such relevance to a topic like space tourism. What I’m more interested in in reading Constitution of Liberty, however, are the implications for space settlement and the extension of Western liberty and its attendant concepts into new realms. And early on, in a discussion on liberty’s value in addressing change, he has this to say:

The undesigned novelties that constantly emerge in the process of adaptation [to changing circumstances] will consist, first, of new arrangements or patterns in which the efforts of different individuals are coordinated and of new constellations in the use of resources, which will be in their nature as temporary as the particular conditions that have evoked them. There will be, second, modifications of tools and institutions adapted to the new circumstances. Some of these will also be merely temporary adaptations to the conditions of the moment, while others will be improvements that increase the versatility of the existing tools and usages and will therefore be retained. These latter will constitute a better adaptation not merely to the particular circumstances of time and place but to some permanent feature of our environment.

In other words, the process of adapting to new conditions brings about new ways and new institutions through a process of evolution, outcomes which (as he elaborates on elsewhere) would be unlikely to result from a process of deliberate, anticipatory planning.

This is why it is hard for me to take seriously conventions or treaties or other efforts which aim to establish detailed international “regimes” by which space resources may be used and ownership claimed. Establishing elaborate regimes in advance of settlement essentially precludes free experimentation with alternatives which may prove superior, and which through competition and selection would tailor themselves to the conditions actually experienced in the field. In practice, even the preordained regimes governing resources, property rights, and other aspects of space settlement would have to evolve eventually, but how much time and effort would be spent unneccessarily in the process before the needed reforms in ill-considered (but lovingly planned-out) institutions were finally brought about? All because a few idealists prefer to engineer a brave new world from scratch to the time-honored practice of extending existing institutions to the new frontier and letting them evolve and adapt as needed. Predictably, Hayek has something to say about that as well:

Those who believe that all useful institutions are deliberate contrivances and who cannot conceive of anything serving a human purpose that has not been consciously designed are almost of necessity enemies of freedom. For them, freedom means chaos.

Should be interesting to see what the remaining 340 pages of tortured but fascinating prose have to say.

2 comments to Hayek on Space

  • Aaron_J

    Thanks for the post. The first quote presents a powerful argument against wealth redistribution that I hadn’t considered before.

  • I liked Sowell’s take a little more:
    Paraphrased: All these people who have a problem with the distribution of wealth are assuming that it was distributed to begin with!