Last week reports emerged that Elon Musk was growing tired of providing free Starlink—a satellite internet system operated by SpaceX—to the Ukrainian government.
“The Starlink-Ukraine honeymoon period appears to be at an end: SpaceX reportedly wants the US to begin picking up the tab for more of its war-zone services,” reported The Register.
On October 7 Musk claimed on Twitter SpaceX had already eaten $80 million in costs for the operation, a price tag that is expected to hit $100 million by the end of the year.
“We are not in a position to further donate terminals to Ukraine, or fund the existing terminals for an indefinite period of time,” SpaceX’s director of government sales wrote to the Pentagon in a September letter that was obtained by CNN.
That Musk no longer wanted SpaceX to pay for critical satellite services in Ukraine and was asking the Pentagon to foot the bill didn’t sit well with many, especially since Musk doesn’t appear to be a fan of the war in Ukraine, which has led to accusations that he’s a Putin stooge.
Musk this week announced that SpaceX has withdrawn its request for the Pentagon to fund Starlink in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced that it has “held discussions about funding for the company’s Starlink,” suggesting that perhaps some agreement is being reached.
Some have suggested a simpler solution, however. On Monday, journalist and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said the federal government should be laying the groundwork to seize Starlink from Musk.
“It was always unreasonable, and is becoming unwise, to expect [Musk] to provide Internet to Ukraine for free forever. Western allies should pay,” said Frum, who is currently an editor at The Atlantic and an MSNBC contributor. “And US should have a plan ready to nationalize Starlink fast if Musk cuts off Ukraine's connection to advance his political agenda.”
Frum then shared a link to an article on the National Constitution Center, which explored Woodrow Wilson’s order nationalizing the entire US rail system during World War I.
“There's abundant precedent for US government seizure of critical infrastructure during wars or national emergencies,” wrote Frum. “Of course, reasonable compensation must be paid, per the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.”
It was always unreasonable, and is becoming unwise, to expect @elonmusk to provide Internet to Ukraine for free forever. Western allies should pay. And US should have a plan ready to nationalize Starlink fast if Musk cuts off Ukraine's connection to advance his political agenda.— David Frum (@davidfrum) October 17, 2022
Pursuing the Greater Good
Frum is correct that it’s unreasonable to expect SpaceX to indefinitely provide free internet service to Ukraine. He’s also correct that there’s ample historical examples of the federal government nationalizing critical infrastructure during emergencies and wars.
Wilson did seize private railroads during World War I. He also used the Sedition Act to imprison thousands of Americans who had the temerity to use “disloyal or abusive” language about the government or the war. Wilson also drafted nearly 3 million Americans into World War I, a conflict he campaigned on staying out of.
None of these actions are just simply because the government did them previously, but they do illustrate an important lesson: many of the most egregious violations of civil liberties have occurred during wars and government-declared “emergencies.”
Wilson was hardly the only president to use a war emergency to justify blatant violations of civil liberties. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, seized newspapers, and arrested editors. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered tens of thousands of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II (as well as smaller numbers of Italian and German Americans). Harry Truman seized the nation’s private steel mills during a labor spat. Under George W. Bush, the CIA tortured detainees.
In every case, these actions were justified by public officials seeking to achieve a “greater good,” and it’s not hard to see how these rationalizations work, especially during wars. Winning becomes the goal, and eventually the pursuit of that end justifies virtually any means—so long as they help realize that goal.
Frum offers a case in point. He’s advocating seizing the property of a private American citizen to help win a war the United States is not even an active participant in. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Frum that the precedent he cites, unjust as it was, occurred while America was actually fighting in World War I. Furthermore, it was only done after Congress had passed the Army Appropriations Act, which gave the president war powers to take over the nation’s transportation systems.
Frum might get many things wrong on policy, but he’s a smart man (not to mention a talented writer); so I think he knows all this. His error is that he’s putting ends before means, which is a serious moral mistake.
The bottom line is Starlink belongs to Elon Musk, not the US government, which has no right to it. Plunder, even when it is “legal,” doesn’t become just when the government does it.