On this day in 1934, Yuri Gagarin was born. He was the first name in space. It’s interesting to look back at that time, because the Soviet Union was totally dominating the United States in the “space race.” And the truth was that many people in America were concerned that the Soviets were beating us for exactly the reason that we now claim that they were doomed: central planning and collective action. Good ol’ Yankee individualism triumphs in the end! But there is a fundamental problem with this narrative about how the US caught and eventually surpassed the Soviets: it’s wrong.
The US out-competed the USSR by also using central planning and collective action. Americans live in thicker and more varied denial than any other group on the planet. And I really think we ought to wake up from our very dangerous slumber. That’s especially true with all this recent talk about Mars One. Even if it were to ever happen, eventually there would be a crisis and the government would have to step in. Whether it would or not, is unclear — but those are the kinds of resources that are necessary.
So we rightly celebrate Yuri Gagarin as a hero. But what he did is what we did. Some claim that the greatest accomplishment of the Soviet Union was the US moon landing because of how the USSR motivated American lawmakers. It works the other way too. And to my fellow Americans who wonder why our manned space program petered out in the 1970s, I suggest you look at where the resources of the nation went. That was the beginning of the end of shared benefits from productivity. More and more money went to the wealthy. Less and less money came in from taxes to the point where it is almost impossible to raise taxes, even as they sit at historical lows. We have learned the wrong lessons from history. We have decided that government can’t do anything, even though it put humans in space. And so we have impoverished the government and now the rich are our masters. And that’s why we aren’t going to Mars.
Happy birthday Yuri Gagarin!