Chris Spoke: To Mars and beyond: Conservatives must embrace an abundance agenda

We must empower and embolden builders to escape our current stagnation
SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award, in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Hannibal Hanschke/Pool via AP.

My wife thinks it’s a bit weird that I never cry. But recently, I came pretty close.

It was while watching the final scene of Apple TV+’s For All Mankind season two finale.

The series begins in 1969 and depicts an alternate history where the space race never ends, and both America and the Soviet Union keep pushing the technological frontier to get to the moon and beyond. It’s fantastic.

In that final scene of the second season, you take the perspective of a camera flying across the Martian surface, slowly descending, and finally pausing at ground level. Two human feet in space boots step into frame. A date appears: 1995.

Still image from For All Mankind. Credit: Apple TV+

It’s tragic.

That could have been us! But it isn’t. In fact, we (humans) haven’t even been back to the moon since 1972. There is no lunar base, there are no spaceships capable of taking us to Mars, and there certainly isn’t anyone on Mars now. It’s 2022.

Again, tragic.

I want the future to be radically more awesome than the present.

And not just in terms of space exploration. I want the stuff of utopian science fiction, including radically extended healthy lifespans, energy too cheap to meter, and of course, flying cars.

Which brings me to my politics.

We don’t have flying cars. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter (just the opposite: high and rising). Life expectancies have been increasing in poor countries as they develop but we’re all now kind of converging and plateauing in the late 70s. And we don’t have humans on Mars.

Why not? And what can we do to accelerate the advent of those things, never mind those more basic and pressing concerns like abundant and affordable urban housing?

My conservatism is largely centered on a rich and growing body of thought concerning the causes and remedies to our Great Stagnation.

To describe it well, I’ll have to pull from four important essays that were written just over the last two years.

The first is Tyler Cowen’s post on State Capacity Libertarianism.1What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism In it, he defines an emerging ideological movement that pairs the liberty maximizing priorities of libertarians with a recognition that a strong and competent state is necessary to do those things that it is either best positioned to do, or that a sufficiently large majority of people think it is best positioned to do.

For example, while more libertarianism is probably the right prescription for our high and rising cost of urban housing—namely, through deregulation—a highly capable state is undoubtedly needed to address our bad and worsening urban traffic congestion. Think: subway infrastructure that is delivered rapidly and cost-effectively, dynamic congestion pricing that is implemented efficiently, and that sort of thing.

The second essay is Peter Thiel’s “Back to the Future”.2Back to the Future It’s a review of Ross Douthat’s book, The Decadent Society.

In it, he describes Western cultural, technological, and economic stagnation over the last fifty years.

“Over the last two generations, the only truly radical change has taken place in the devices we use for communication and entertainment, so that a single one of the nineteenth century’s great inventions [running water] still looms larger in our everyday existence than most of what we think of as technological breakthroughs.”

The third essay is Marc Andreesen’s “It’s Time To Build”.3It’s Time To Build As in Peter Thiel’s essay, he describes the absence of technological progress across many domains. As in Tyler Cowen’s, he emphasizes the need for a strong and competent state as a complement to strong and competent market actors.

He frames it all as a rallying cry for builders.

“Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, forms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.”

The fourth essay is Derek Thompson’s “A Simple Plan to Solve All of America’s Problems”.4A Simple Plan to Solve All of America’s Problems

It takes all of the above and distills it down to a common sense, supply-side abundance agenda. On health care: make it easier to build more hospitals, train more doctors, and have foreign doctors accepted as immigrants. On housing: make it easier to build more housing. On transportation: make it easier to build more subway lines and stations and other infrastructure. On energy and climate change: make it easier to build more nuclear and geothermal and solar.

You get the theme, which ties back neatly to the other three pieces. We haven’t done enough of any of that. We need a strong and competent state that can streamline approval processes and deregulate where required to enable builders to build.

This is how we get to a future that looks more like the Jetsons than it does the Breakfast Club with smartphones.

It’s how we deliver rapidly rising standards of living for all, and it’s how we get to Mars and beyond.

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