Thank Billionaires For all Your Favorite Innovations
America has a love-hate relationship with the uber rich, specifically the billionaires racing to be the first to launch the space-tourism industry. But those who chastise billionaires and their passion projects do so at their own peril. For it is through their financial sacrifice that our most innovative advances have been made.
We are living in an unprecedented era for the expansion of private space travel. What started with Elon Musk’s successful SpaceX launch last summer has heated up over the last couple of months as both Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson announced that they, too, would be shooting for the stars.
In early July, Branson announced that he would be flying into space aboard his Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. spacecraft. Just nine days later, Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC rocket completed its first flight. With the wonders of private space travel now more plausible than ever, it’s only a matter of time before customers are lining up to buy their tickets into space—a ticket that is expected to cost around $250,000 per flight.
For those of us excited by the potential of privately-funded space exploration, the great billionaire space race is cause for celebration. But for those with deep-seated disdain for capitalism and private wealth, Branson, Bezos, and Musk’s accomplishments have presented the perfect opportunity to scorn the rich for how they choose to spend their money.
It wasn’t long after Bezos and Branson’s initial announcements that headlines warning of the dangers of unchecked billionaire egos and virtue-signaling tweets flooded the internet.
Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted:
“No one needs Bezos to launch rockets into outer space. We need him to pay his fair share of taxes so people can thrive here on Earth.”
Senator Bernie Sanders added his two cents, tweeting:
“Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor — but hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space!
Yes. It’s time to tax the billionaires.”
These criticisms judging the rich for how they choose to spend their money is nothing new.
Along with Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren has constantly proposed a tax on the mega rich so that their money can be spent on government programs instead of “jewelry and yachts“.
For critics like Sanders and Warren, the billionaire space race represents everything that is wrong with capitalism. How dare billionaires ignore the plight of the less fortunate and instead pay for luxuries that only benefit the mega rich.
Taken at face value, space travel might seem like an extravagant use of one’s money. But, a closer look at history sheds new light on this alleged luxurious spending.
In economist Ludwig von Mises’ Liberalism, he writes in his chapter “The Inequality of Wealth and Income”:
“The luxury of today is the necessity of tomorrow.”
No one can say for sure whether space travel will be a necessity in the future, just as no one living during the advent of the automobile could have accurately predicted the vital role it would play in modern society. In fact, many dismissed the first car as being a lavish product meant only for the wealthy.
Today, countless people rely on cars to get to work, school, and doctor’s appointments—a convenience that is only now possible because enough wealthy people purchased cars when they first hit the market. This eventually led to widespread demand, which then led to innovators like Henry Ford finding a way to make this expensive product available to almost everyone.
Even something as simple as a fork was once seen as a luxurious good, as Mises explains.
“When in the middle ages, an aristocratic Byzantine lady who had married a Venetian doge made use of a golden implement, which could be called the forerunner of the fork as we know it today, instead of her fingers, in eating her meals, the Venetians looked on this as a godless luxury.”
Chastising someone for using a utensil while they eat seems preposterous today, but when the woman later died from a horrible disease, her death was celebrated as just retribution for her “lavish” ways.
It wasn’t that long ago that indoor bathrooms were considered a privilege afforded only to the rich. Now, living without this basic necessity seems unthinkable, especially in developed countries.
Condemning luxury does not only ignore the most basic premise that each individual should be free to spend their own money in whatever way they so choose, it also stifles innovation that could benefit every single one of us in the future.
In his infamous wisdom, Mises concludes his chapter writing:
“Every advance first comes into being as the luxury of a few rich people, only to become, after time, the indispensable necessity taken for granted by everyone.”
“Luxury consumption provides industry the stimulus to discover and introduce new things … To it, we owe the progressive innovations by which the standard of living of all strata of the population has been gradually raised.”
These words are no less true about indoor plumbing as they are about space travel.
What Musk, Branson, and Bezos are doing today may have positive and groundbreaking societal impacts that we cannot even fathom right now. And how truly wonderful it is that they are risking their own money to advance their dreams, and not money taken from the taxpayer.
So instead of attacking billionaires for their seemingly lavish passion projects, we should remember the wise words of Mises and give them thanks for setting “an example of luxury that awakens in the multitude a consciousness of new needs and gives industries the incentive to fulfill them.”