Saturday 28 Mar 2020 | 21:18 | SYDNEY
Saturday 28 Mar 2020 | 21:18 | SYDNEY

In a Senate Inquiry, no one can hear you scream


Sam Roggeveen


23 May 2008 16:00

It should be clear by now that I am no economist, but as an undergraduate I spent enough time at Centre for Independent Studies conferences to learn what rent seeking is. One sure give-away is the use of the term 'nation building':

Astronaut Andy Thomas has urged Australia to play a bigger role in space science and exploration. Dr Thomas told a Senate inquiry into the space industry, sitting in Adelaide today, that Australia should establish a dedicated space agency to foster expertise in everything from satellite technology to rocket launching..."Imagine then the sense of national pride...imagine the excitement young people would feel knowing an important discovery regarding climate change, or an image from the moon, or the discovery that life once existed on Mars had an Australian origin. Imagine the community response knowing there's an Australian flag on the side of an instrument sitting on the surface of the moon or on Mars. That kind of national pride is what I think nation building is about and its importance should not be underestimated."

Australians are far from immune to national pride arguments. After all, we don't object to the fact that the state offers massive subsidies to athletes so that they can bring home Olympic medals. But would our pride be much reduced if, instead of creating a new bureaucracy, we instead encouraged the Australian private sector to play a greater role in space? In fact, what's stopping them now? Dr Thomas says South Australia has good satellite launch facilities, which begs the question of why no company has sought to exploit them. If there is a market failure here there might be an argument for government funding. But that's probably not the case. The private space business is still small, but booming in historical terms.

Dr Thomas claims '(e)ven some countries regarded as third world do more' in space than Australia. But if that's true (and I'm not sure which countries he has in mind here. Perhaps India?), we should remind ourselves that those countries are third world for a reason. Investing in 'national pride' projects at the expense of rational economic management is surely one of them.