Who shall defend us from the falling sky?

As you may have read, astronomers have noted that a relatively large near-earth asteroid has (at current calculations) a 1:45 chance of hitting our humble planetary abode, causing a phenomenal amount of damage (4 on the Torino Scale), causing (among other things) dogs & cats to live together and mass hysteria.

In somewhat unrelated news, a massive earthquake spawned a similarly massive tsunami which has killed over 20,000 people (with reports still coming in).

Tying it together, Radley Balko points out that the damage/devestation of the earthquake is on a similar scale to what we might expect from a reasonably nasty-sized asteroid hitting the Earth - being that 70% of the Earth's surface is covered by water - and that since asteroid strikes are civilization-threatening events, "[p]rotecting against them is a legitimate public good, one libertarians should have few qualms about supporting."

Well, yes, but I'm not quite sure that, as Balko seems to imply, that the solution is necessarily a Federal or governmental one. Routinized access to low Earth orbit would make deflecting (and detecting) asteroids orders of magnitude less difficult; the development of that industry would, as a by product, provide the 'public good' of asteroid defense, and as a salutary point would not require government at all (at least, no special government program aside from routine administration of justice). We've already seen this sort of correlation- when four hurricanes scoured Florida in rapid succession, about a hundred people died (out of millions). One hurricane hits the Yucatan, and 100x as many people die. Mostly as a result of a developed country having, as a matter of course from general economic activity, the infrastructure and means to save lives & avoid the deadly effects of natural disasters.

Providing public goods as a side effect of private activity isn't so odd (i.e. a positive externality) - look at the case of radiologists using iPods to store medical images. R&D by Apple for a completely unrelated field is ending up giving unforeseen value to the health care industry. Apple only gets the profits from the iPod in particular- so it's research has provided a positive externality (much like education or vaccination benefits more people than just the person recieving the good, and are thus are also often considered 'public goods' ). I imagine that should space entrepreneurs get off the ground and we get routine private access to LEO, similar unforeseen benefits would arise, with no need for a Federal department, initiative, or new spending.

Share this