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Monday, August 10, 2015

Kickstarter Saved Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit

What else can voluntary private cooperation do better than politics?

Last month, the Smithsonian Institute launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to preserve the spacesuit that Neil Armstrong wore on the moon 46 years ago. Not only was the goal met in just four days, but, with a week left, the campaign has already beaten its target by over $135,000.

Some people have pointed to this as evidence that Washington bureaucrats have a poor sense of priorities: How dare we not preserve something as significant as Neil Armstrong’s historic suit?

Let’s set aside for now the question of whether preserving a spacesuit constitutes a worthwhile government project and instead focus on the important lesson here: We don’t need to automatically think that only government should fund public projects. Where Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, the American public has taken a small step towards smaller government.

Traditional economic literature contends that (1) public goods exist, (2) the market cannot supply them, (3) these goods must be supplied by government, and (4) government must tax citizens in order to pay for providing them. These taxes are, as the old saying goes, “the price we pay for a civilized society.” 

In successfully funding this campaign, the American people once again demonstrated that chain of reasoning is not as sound as econ textbooks assume. When Congress refused to fund preserving a part of the nation’s history, the American people stepped up and did it themselves. What’s more, not only did the people fully fund the project, but they even gave the Smithsonian more than was asked for and the campaign is still going!

While crowd-funding public projects in this fashion is relatively new, it nevertheless has been used in other situations where conventional wisdom suggests a need for government funds.

For example, the Detroit Achievement Academy, a free public charter school located in the heart of Detroit, recently required additional funds after thieves broke into their school and stole computers and other supplies. In response, they started an online fundraiser to raise the money to replace the stolen items.

While they didn’t hit the posted goal of their campaign, they were able to open their doors and expand the provision of their services to underprivileged inner-city children in Detroit thanks to matching donations and other outside contributions. Today, the school is quickly becoming one of the best in the country.

This speaks volumes to the American people. Despite the fact that Congress has a budget of many trillions of dollars this year, we’re already hearing that some organizations are going to have to economize and prioritize what projects they undertake, and there’s even a looming threat of sequestration in the fall.

What this Kickstarter campaign effectively says is that the American people have had enough with a Washington bureaucracy that systematically fails to provide the things we care about. We don’t care about politics, grandstanding, or budget tricks. We care about getting things done. Today, we have yet another shining example of how unnecessary government is for getting what we want.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowd-funding websites provide a way for the American public to fund projects in a way that has previously been prohibitively costly. It allows all of us to contribute what we think is right towards causes that we as individuals care about. Thanks to these websites, there is no mystery as to where your dollars go because you specifically chose which projects to fund.

The time has come for the American public to wrest control of the public purse from Washington bureaucrats who would rather grandstand and bicker with one another than effect real change. Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding public projects provides a means of returning this power directly to the people. 

  • David Hebert is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ferris State University. His interests include public finance and property rights.