Democracies vs. Large Projects (like colonizing Mars ‘n’ stuff)

Is it possible for a society as complex and varied as America is to accomplish great things?  Or will every great idea be nibbled to death by all the various people who find fault with it?

The problem with democracies where everyone has a voice is that everyone has a voice. The people who want to colonize Mars have a voice and the people who want to protect Snail Darters have a voice. This, of course, causes acrimony and dissension. Trying for consensus can bring paralysis. This was a discussion held between nations in the early 20th century. The dictatorships, Germany, Italy and the U.S.S.R. held that the democracies were weak and lazy, that you needed strong leaders to get anything accomplished. The conversation ended in a contest that two of the dictatorships lost because they attacked the third dictatorship who then allied itself with the democracies. Can large, controversial projects be completed faster in totalitarian societies? Look at what China is accomplishing right now. Eliminate dissent and you certainly streamline the process. Do I wish the United States government would model itself after the Chinese model? Or the Soviet? Or the Fascists or the Nazis? As Winston Churchill once said: Democracy is the worst possible form of government, until you look at all the other forms of government.

I would love to colonize and terraform Mars and do many other things in space and I think we will because it is a good idea and people act on good ideas sooner or later. As we speak, even with the future of NASA in disarray the the future of the solvency of great nations in doubt, lots of people are working on this problem and how to get it solved. How do we make getting into orbit lots, LOTS cheaper? How do we protect people from ionizing cosmic radiation and solar storms outside the van Allen belts? How do we turn pee into a delicious, refreshing drink over and over again? How do we turn poop into yummy food? How do we live inside a can for long periods of time without getting on each other’s nerves?

We’ve had a few shocks concerning space travel over the last half century. There aren’t any Martians or Venusians to trade with or defend ourselves against. There aren’t steamy jungles on Venus or canals on Mars. Professor Oddball and the two teenage geniuses who think he’s cool can’t put together a rocket ship to go fight Nazis on the moon. Everything is a lot more expensive than we hoped it would be. But we’ll come back. We’ll figure it out. And we’ll leave the Snail Darter his little home while we do it.

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6 Responses to Democracies vs. Large Projects (like colonizing Mars ‘n’ stuff)

  1. Jim Perkins says:

    Firstly, thanks for the opportunity to comment on the subject matter of this blog, since it’s something I almost never think about and it allows me the chance to begin a sentence with ‘firstly’.
    I have recently become a student of classical history (and earlier) and have paid particular attention to the development of civilizations that were established/ruled by individuals (and it always seems to be a charismatic guy…sorry ladies…who happens to be a general with a very large army). Most times, the conquering player(s) smell just like dictators…except that, because they were the winners, aren’t called dictators (’cause the winners write the history). Then, when (and often if) the dust settles, the ruling class settles down and turns to wringing as much as possible out of the conquered population (and running up the deficit) and then, finally, to art, education and building monuments with statues. Then, repeat cycle. So, in response to your first point, dictators are always much more effective at establishing order, but almost always terrible at the administration of said order (see Alex the Great & Chandragupta).
    Now for space colonization…I agree with you that it will happen and maybe humans will be involved, at least initially (though there will be some who disagree…wait, that’s your line). However, the real rub comes in when we start talking about when this leap will occur. Using the current technology, we can maybe establish a colony on our own moon by, say, the end of the century (maybe sooner if we are using technology proposed by Popular Mechanics). A trip to Mars, or a moon of Jupiter, by jove, will take longer and involve problems that our great-great grandchildren haven’t even dreamed of, yet, like for instance, a source for power (other than the ever-ready bunny), water (I’m not going anywhere near your pee), and, of course, cheetos (I do have an idea that involves the snail darter…deep fried). These are daunting problems that will not be soon solved, even if we have a (benevolent) dictator and the will and voice of the ‘people’. But I share your optimism and agree that someday we’ll conquer the solar system and begin turning our creative energies to the arts.

    • john says:

      As to your first point, this is why I’ve always admired Garibaldi. He forcibly unified Italy and then went home to his farm and left the running of the new nation to others. The only general I know of who has ever done that.

      As to when it will occur, that IS still speculative, because we’re never going to pull it off by putting a few people at a time on top of skyscraper sized pipes full of chemical propellants and blasting them into space at a hundred million bucks a pop. But there are lots of ideas out there that are close to fruition which may ease this burden considerably.

      Thanks for chiming in, Jim! I’m glad to have given you the opportunity to hold forth on this topic!

  2. Sagramore says:

    Umm…you may be romanticizing Garibaldi’s actions a bit. He mostly kind of won back Southern Italy from the Neapolitan/French faction, and then when he ran into a larger Piedmontese army outside of Rome, led by people who did not want Garibaldi in charge, he handed over his men and picked up farming…for about 2 months. He then tried unsuccessfully to conquer Rome about 12 times, tried to win back Venice a few times, did a few stints in prison, and even petitioned Lincoln to let him lead the Union forces during the US Civil War…

    I think Cincinattus and maybe even Sulla would be better examples of the giving up power once you’re finished thing.

    And yes, let’s explore space.

    • john says:

      Thanks for the specifics, Sagramore. That’s the difference between a state school education and a private school education. My college European history professor just told me Garibaldi went home.

  3. Sagramore says:

    I’m half Italian. This is all genetic memory I was born with.

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