On July 11, 2021, the British businessman Richard Branson fulfilled his lifelong dream of flying into space. At 8:40 a.m., Branson’s Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity 22 and its mothership Eve took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Having reached an altitude of over 50 miles, which is the U.S. government’s definition of space, and zero gravity, Unity 22 delivered the crew, consisting of Branson and five Virgin Galactic staffers, safely back to Earth. The flight, which was a culmination of 17 years of planning, research, development, and extensive safety testing, could mark the beginning of commercial space tourism.
It is difficult to overestimate Branson’s accomplishment. Our ancestors used to stare at the night sky, imagining an ethereal world populated by powerful and vengeful deities in need of appeasement. Today, a number of private companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, are pursuing goals that are similar to Branson’s: to bring space travel to the masses. Initially, the thrill of space flight will come at a steep price—Virgin Galactic tickets sell for $250,000 per flight—but thousands of relatively well-off people throughout the world can look forward to seeing our beautiful planet from above in the coming decade.
How, then, did parts of the American clerisy choose to commemorate Branson’s achievement? The headline “British billionaire Branson flies above 50 miles in his space plane, becoming first ‘space baron’ to qualify for astronaut wings” conjures up images of 19th-century American businessmen, such as Astor, Carnegie, Hearst, Mellon, Morgan, and Vanderbilt, who used supposedly exploitative practices to amass their wealth. Perhaps the most hated of these figures was J. D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil Company’s share of the refined-petroleum market increased from 4 percent in 1870 to 85 percent in 1880. Often forgotten is that Standard Oil reduced the price of refined oil from more than 30 cents per gallon in 1869 to 8 cents in 1885.
Sure, Branson, Bezos, and other space entrepreneurs are going to grow richer still, but competition, economies of scale, and the concomitant efficiency gains are bound to reduce the price of space tourism over time. The cost of the Ford Motor Company’s Model T, for example, fell from $825 in 1909 (or 4,853 hours of work at a blue-collar wage of $0.17 per hour) to $360 in 1927 (or 692 hours of work at a blue-collar wage of $.52 per hour). That amounts to a time-price reduction of 86 percent. The once-close-to-unattainable luxury is now ubiquitous, with 93 percent of U.S. households having access to at least one car in 2019, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
The same is true of electricity, plumbing, radios, refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, air conditioners, dishwashers, color television, microwaves, computers, cellphones, VCRs and DVD players, etc. What’s more, the speed of adaptation of new technologies, as W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm of Southern Methodist University have shown, is increasing. It took about half a century from the invention of the telephone to the time when 50 percent of U.S. households owned one. In contrast, after only twelve years of smartphones hitting the stores, 50 percent of individual Americans possessed one. That is what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter had in mind when he noted that the
capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses. . . . It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls.
In fact, I am willing to extend a $10,000 wager to the editor at the Washington Post who came up with the “space baron” headline that in ten years’ time, a Virgin Galactic flight equivalent to the one taken by the British billionaire will cost less in terms of hours of work than it costs today.
Over at NBC News, the headline read “Richard Branson space flight beats out Jeff Bezos. But all of humanity loses.” According to the author, Chandra Steele, “the stratification of who gets to leave the stratosphere is not another division we need.” In the past,
astronauts did not go in the stead of the rest of the planet; they were pioneers on behalf of the rest of the population. . . . It seems unlikely that the billionaires who travel to space will engage in a meaningful way with the broader population afterward, in part because they’re so far removed from other people. In fact, their privilege has put them at such odds with Earth’s inhabitants that many don’t want them to come back.
Where to begin? First, the word “privilege” does not mean what Steele appears to think it means. The English word “privilege” derives from the Latin privilegium, which, in turn, consists of two Latin words: privus (private) and lex (law). And so, for about 2,000 years, privilege meant “a law for just one person, a benefit enjoyed by an individual or group beyond what is available to others.” In a highly stratified society, such as Europe before the Enlightenment, different groups enjoyed different privileges and guarded the latter jealously and, sometimes, violently.
During the Enlightenment, privileges, such as serf duties owed to the nobility and the tax-exempt status of the clergy in France, came under sustained attack from the advocates of equality before the law. Since the French Revolution in 1789, which “adopted equality of taxation and redemption of all manorial rights” (in the words of the historian Georges Lefebvre), the use of the word privilege steadily declined, Google’s nGram viewer shows, until it was resurrected about seven years ago by the American Left and perverted to denote “luck,” “fortune,” “advantage,” or “opportunity.”
Branson’s success rests in the British billionaire’s propensity toward entrepreneurial insight and a good measure of hard work, rather than an entitlement or “privilege” granted by the state. Though, in fairness to Steele, it is perfectly understandable why the equalitarian Left would want to blur the lines between privilege as “good fortune” and privilege understood as inequality before the law. In the world inhabited by Homo progressivus, talent and conscientiousness (not to mention other important desiderata, such as intelligence) are distributed equally and differences in socioeconomic outcomes must be a result of systemic forces, rather than sheer dumb luck. And that, progressives believe, is a legitimate subject of government interest and correction.
Second, Steele asserts that “all of humanity loses” from commercial space tourism, presumably because, as she notes elsewhere in her article, space exploration used to lead to “a unifying commitment” to “improving life on the planet,” whereas now space tourism is at risk of becoming just a plaything of the wealthy. That’s nonsense. Branson and Bezos do not detract from space exploration; they add to it. The dawn of commercial space tourism does not mean that Steele’s preferred way of space exploration (i.e., one paid for by the taxpayer) has to stop. The European Space Agency, NASA, and the Russian and Chinese governments are in no way impeded from doing what they have been doing for decades—albeit slowly and expensively.
Third, Steele writes that unequal access to space, which she calls “stratification,” is “divisive.” That assertion, which is unsupported by any empirical evidence, could be interpreted as an expression of Steele’s personal disappointment at being unable to do what Branson did. The conclusion of her article, in which she notes that “it’s unsettling to watch them [Branson, Bezos, and Elon Musk] flex the power to leave the planet, particularly in such troubled times,” certainly points in that direction. Be that as it may, Steele misunderstands the role that “inequality” plays in fueling all kinds of human progress.
Let’s start with economics. The financially well-off, who will be the initial customers of Branson’s and Bezos’s ventures, will infuse both enterprises with cash that will, in turn, result in more spaceships being built. Attracted by the scent of profit, other space-travel companies will be launched. Competition and additional supply will reduce the price of space travel until, one day, it will come within reach of NBC columnists. That’s how a mobile phone went from the “greedy” hands of Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street into the pockets of Kenyan farm workers and Bangladeshi fishermen.
Let’s now turn to politics and society. The American Revolution led to a representative form of government that set the United States apart from all other political entities on earth. True, the franchise was highly restricted (mostly, though by no means exclusively, to propertied white men), but a much greater share of Americans got to choose their own government than was the case elsewhere. That resulted in a kind of institutional inequality—one that other nations first observed, then found uncongenial, and finally deemed worthy of eliminating by becoming more democratic.
Or take the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, liberty, and dignity, as well as religious toleration, freedom of expression, pursuit of happiness, equality before the law, etc. It took centuries before the values of the Enlightenment were more or less fully implemented in the West. But, over time, Western societies grew more tolerant and freer. That too resulted in global inequality in such things as the treatment of women, ethnic and racial minorities, homosexuals, children, etc. And while the values of the Enlightenment may be in retreat in some parts of the world, including the West itself, remember that for decades oppressed people in dozens of countries aspired to close the Enlightenment gap and become more Western.
Finally, let’s look at culture. The Soviet bloc was economically stagnant and socially retrograde, and culturally (as well as environmentally) it was a wasteland. Relative to the West, communist art was highly stylized and uninspiring. Its literature (with the important exception of persecuted writers, such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak) was stultified and unreadable. Its film industry was primitive, ponderous, and propagandistic. Its fashion and design industries were close to nonexistent. And so, throughout the communist period, the captive nations behind the Iron Curtain longed to wear American jeans, read American magazines, watch American movies, and listen to American music. In a word, they wanted to close the cultural gap by becoming more American.
The Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker once quipped that “intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.” The question is: Why? Perhaps one of the reasons for that curious attitude is not the clerisy’s opposition to progress as such, but to the means by which that progress is being achieved. Since the Enlightenment, we have become richer, healthier, better fed, longer-lived, more educated, and, as Pinker himself showed, gentler and nicer. Not only did most of that progress come about in free-enterprise countries during the free-enterprise era, but progress happened despite the constant warnings from the clerisy that free enterprise would achieve the exact opposite.
Inequality of outcome is inherent to a free economy, which tends to reward the most talented. Since talent is unequally and arbitrarily distributed, free enterprise and its resulting inequality of outcome are unpalatable to the equalitarian Left. Yet progress depends on the flourishing of the talented. That means that inequality is truly the midwife of progress. And that’s why progressives hate progress.
A version of this article appeared in National Review.