A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Innovation and the Lack of Theft

You sitting there reading this – yes, you – are selfish. Do you lock your door at night? Selfish. Do you keep your money in safe places (the bank, a lock-box, a money belt)? Selfish. Have you insured your car? Your home? Your engagement ring? Selfish, selfish, selfish. Would you spend your money on a doctor if you became ill? Selfish.

Do you expect reasonable raises at work, and are you happy when you get one? Selfish!

The word “selfish” has gotten a bad rap; people tend to think it means “miserly” or “greedy”, but those words actually mean something different. “Selfish” simply implies one is self-interested, which, if you’re still alive this far into the 21st Century, you are to one degree or another. Self-interest is what keeps you from stepping in front of busses or punching out your boss when he’s being an unreasonable bastard. It makes you use latex condoms, go to the doctor when you have a persistent stomach pain, and (if you’re smart) keep clothes and a weapon where you can reach both easily from your sleeping place.

Self-interest is why you want to keep what belongs to you ... if you didn’t need it, you wouldn’t have worked so hard for it. Besides that, it’s yours. Common sense tells you that you have a right to keep the fruits of your labor; money – or the goods and services that money buys – represent your investment of time and energy. The gold belongs to the guy who bought mining tools, risked his life digging it out of the ground, and sweated his nuts off in the sun separating nuggets from pebbles. It does not belong to the highwayman or the con artist, and if either of them takes the miner’s gold we rightly call it theft.

There is an entire socio-economic system built on theft. It's known as socialism, and it operates by taking everything (or almost everything) that everyone produces and then distributing it evenly among the population. It doesn’t matter if you pay for good mining tools and work twenty-hour days to fill a bag with gold dust, while the next guy comes up with nothing because he sat in the shade all day and prefers to invest his money in rot-gut whiskey. Under socialism, he’s entitled to as much of your gold as you are. In fact, if he and the town whore get a marriage license from the judge and squeeze out two bratty, no-account kids, they’re entitled to more of your gold than you are. Socialism also says it’s immoral for you to complain about it and illegal for you to try and change things.

So, under socialism, it of course ends up that lots of people sit in the shade and drink the rot-gut while very few put in the twenty-hour days with the expensive mining equipment. What’s the point if the rewards are the same for both? Eventually there is less and less gold, because everyone’s sucking off the system but few are actually producing anything. Soon the entire society collapses into anarchy as goods, services, and the money to buy them disappear (to say nothing of the fragile support structure required for things like art and science).

This is generally why, at the height of their empire, the Soviets had to wait in line for toilet paper.

Yesterday, people operating under a very different system put a man in space. No government help was required; private investors shelled out the cash to build a radically new design of spacecraft, one that launches and lands at an ordinary airport and has a gap of about a week between flights. Ten years ago everyone said such a thing was impossible. Not unlikely or very hard, but impossible.

SpaceShipOne Taking Off Posted by Hello

Well, the bright folks at Scaled Composites have done it a half-dozen times in the past year or so, with the last two flights coming less than a week apart. They won $10 million for doing that particular part of it. The entire thing was incredibly risky: The investors put huge sums of money on the line, the engineers their reputations, and the pilots their lives. The prize they won only begins to cover the cost of the venture ... but already more investors – and aspiring clients – are lining up outside their door. How does such a thing happen? How can an entire industrial-age superpower be unable to provide its citizens with toilet paper, but 15 years later and half a world away a company of twenty people puts a man in space twice in one week?

Pilot Binne, His Good Ship, and Old Glory Posted by Hello

Simple, really: The Soviets operated under a socialist system, where wealth was constantly stolen from the producers and innovators to be "redistributed". Eventually enough was stolen that production and innovation slowed to a snail’s pace; it simply wasn’t worth anyone’s effort to produce or innovate. Here in America, on the other hand, even the sky's not the limit. The government takes a little of what you make – too much, many people think – but you’re usually left with plenty to live on and enjoy. What’s more, if you can think up something radically new, useful, and / or popular, lots of people will buy it (because they all have some wealth the government isn’t stealing from them). Then you can get really rich, and perhaps invest your wealth in a dream. The next thing you know a private company is using your investment to put people in space ... then other wealthy people want to pay this company $200,000 to go themselves ... then your investment starts to gegerate more wealth ... then the company expands and gives lots of people good jobs ... and so on, and so on.

Social theorists – especially liberal ones – like to talk about this stuff as if it’s theory, as if socialism is an untested system with great potential. It isn’t. It was tried by the Soviets and it failed miserably. It’s in use today, thankfully tempered with democratic institutions, all across Europe. The “social democracies” are decent, safe, and boring places to live. No one starves, folks are generally healthy, and everyone has lots of government benefits. But taxes are huge, and no one is building space ships in the social democracies. Nor are they designing new and radical information systems or developing the cures for virulent diseases. That stuff is done in the Anglo-Asian first world, where talent and effort are rewarded and government thugs don’t steal the bread off your table to feed heroin addicts.

So the next time you hear some muckadoo slandering capitalism, you show them pictures of SpaceShipOne and its designers and pilots. You tell them that here in America we’ve eliminated poverty to such a degree that the biggest problem for our poor is that they eat too much. And you remind them that if their job involves technology in any way they almost certainly owe it to America and her 300 million free and capitalistic people.