Friday, January 23, 2004

Broken Windows on the Moon

Andrew Chamberlain debunks the idea that we ought to credit NASA with the invention of Velcro, Teflon, Tang, Dust Busters, calculators, ad infinitum (thanks to Radley for the pointer). Andrew makes a number of excellent points (with great links, too), but I have to mention explicitly the one Andrew only hinted at: counting these ancillary and sometimes accidental inventions among NASA’s benefits is another variant of the old broken-window fallacy.

If Congress had not allocated all that money to NASA, then either (a) Congress would have allocated it in other ways, or (b) it would have been left in the private sector, where it would have been spent or invested. Either way, it would have stimulated other sectors of the economy. The activity that would have resulted in those other sectors is “what is not seen,” as Fredric Bastiat would have said: it is the invisible cost of the NASA budget. Those other sectors might also have produced a variety of both intentional and accidental inventions. We will never know what advances might have been made in other realms of human endeavor.

Inasmuch as NASA does pioneering research, one could argue that NASA is more likely than other programs to produce spillover benefits. But, as Andrew astutely points out, spillover benefits can result from all kinds of research, not just space exploration, so the claim of spillover benefits is hardly unique to NASA. And accidental discoveries can be made just about anywhere. In any case, the existence of spillover benefits doesn’t erase the costs. To get all those benefits, we had to sacrifice potential gains, of both the novel and mundane variety, elsewhere in the economy. It’s conceivable that NASA produced value on net, but we have to consider the hidden costs to make that calculation; and because those costs are in terms of things that never happened, we can’t ever know for sure. The next time you hear a laundry list of inventions that “would never have happened” if not for NASA, at least give a thought to all the other potential inventions that might have happened if not for NASA.

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