France or a Frontier?

Last week, Rand Simberg noted how much hostile email he’s gotten in response to his columns in support of space colonization.

The letters he published in his column described humanity as some sort of pestilential "cancer on the face of the universe," unfit to spread beyond the Earth.

The attitude displayed by Simberg’s critics is nothing new to me, and it’s something I’d like to explore. Because I think that the very thing about space exploration — and especially space colonization — that provokes such visceral hatred in certain people provides a good reason for going ahead with it.

The notion of space as the "final frontier" has been a cliche ever since the first Star Trek series. But although the term gets used a lot, not many people think about what it means to have a frontier.

I think that space critics have thought about it, though, and I think that’s why they’re so upset. For if you have a certain view of what’s desirable in terms of society and politics, a view that by no coincidence tends to be shared by space critics, then a frontier is your worst enemy.

Frontiers have a number of characteristics. The first is that they foster a rather no-nonsense mindset. Abstract theorizing isn’t rewarded. Things that work are.

That’s bad news if you’re in the abstract-theorizing business, and it’s thus no coincidence that most academics, especially those outside the science and engineering fields, are space critics. And even within the science and engineering fields, it’s the theoreticians, the space scientists, who are the biggest critics of human space exploration.

Unsurprisingly, they’d rather have the money for science.

Among the nonscientists, the opposition is a bit more abstract, becaue they’re not really fighting over the same dollars. What they are fighting for is attention, and if you’ve got a frontier opening up new opportunities and producing societal excitement there will be far fewer people interested in the latest reinterpretation of Sartre.

During the Frontier era, American society respected people who got things done far more than people who talked about the pointlessness of doing things.

To frontierspeople, self-reliance is important. On a frontier, a shirker isn’t just a figure in the welfare statistics — he or she is someone whose laziness may cause everyone else to starve. As a result, the frontier mindset isn’t very friendly to redistributionist policies, which is bad news for those who want to do the redistributing.

Frontiers also encourage liberty. On a frontier, things change too rapidly, and the reach of the government is too short, for there to be a lot of bureacratic governance. Nor does welfare appeal much to people who are having to work hard to support themselves on a frontier. And the kinds of people who flock to frontiers are no great fans of such things anyway.

Worse yet (from a certain perspective), this attitude tends to spread back into the society as a whole, which is bad news for people who like pervasive regulation and European-style bureaucracy.

Frontiers also give rise to a new culture, one that typically pays little attention to the interests of "gatekeepers" who presume to decide what the rest of us should think.

Frontiers generally elevate doers above talkers, and talkers of one sort above talkers of another sort. Not suprisingly, the talkers of another sort don’t like that.

In fact, even the idea of a frontier is so subversive that it arouses opposition, as Simberg’s hate mail illustrates. We’re a long way from settling humans on the Moon or Mars (in some ways, we’re farther from doing it than we were thirty years ago), yet even a mention of space colonization still generates hostility from certain segments.

And just look at the anti-Americans of Europe: when they want to criticize America, they almost always invoke the imagery of the frontier: Bush (like Reagan before him) is derided as a "cowboy," while Americans are described as violent uncultured rednecks. Americans’ interest in welfare reform and dislike of the welfare-statist bureaucracies favored by France and Germany is held up as proof that we’re not civilized yet — even as welfare ghettoes in Europe breed Islamist terrorists by carloads.

We’ve dropped the ball where the space frontier is concerned. But the very reasons why certain people still oppose space settlement provide some very compelling reasons for getting started again. Our choices will make a big difference to the shape of society in the twenty-first century.

France? Or a frontier? The choice is ours.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

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