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Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Astronaut Libertarian?

Government Has Some Limited Role to Play Regarding the Safety of Others

The Astronaut Farmer ranks as an unmistakably libertarian family film. The plot might have a few holes, but the movie raises some fascinating points and questions about individuals pursuing their dreams, limits on personal actions, and the role of government.

The movie hit theaters in February and was scheduled for DVD release in July. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as Charles Farmer, a former astronaut who is continuing to follow his dream of reaching outer space by building a rocket in his barn on a ranch in Texas. Farmer has the support of his wife and kids in this quixotic pursuit, even though it places the family on the brink of bankruptcy and subjects them to ridicule in their community.

For good measure, the government shows up when Farmer starts looking around for the 10,000 pounds of high-grade fuel needed to launch him into orbit.

The filmmakers have some fun at the expense of the FAA and FBI. Bureaucrats are portrayed as buffoons protecting their turf. In their view the only right, safe way to space is via the government. Besides, if civilians could do it, the government would look pretty dumb spending all those billions of taxpayer dollars. (Of course, it is interesting to point out that in real life we have recently seen the birth and expansion of private-sector efforts to journey into space.)

The government’s actions turn particularly nefarious when a child protective services worker warns Farmer’s wife that her husband is brainwashing her and the children. The government threatens to take their kids.

So, in this libertarian movie, we see, as one would expect, government ineptitude and abuse of power.

As for Farmer, he makes the case for his homegrown space effort before a government panel in amusing and stirring fashion befitting a Hollywood movie. He talks of the ills of having too many laws telling people what to do and says he was taught in his youth that we could do anything. Farmer still believes that.

At one point this astronaut wannabe-again notes: “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing.”

That’s the message Farmer communicates to his family. It often will not be easy, but stay true to your beliefs and dreams.

One of the film’s producers, Paula Weinstein, put it this way: “What’s most important is that Farmer does everything he can to succeed. Then, even if he doesn’t, he can still live with himself. That’s something he feels is vitally important to show his children. It’s what America is founded on, and it’s the message of this movie: if you do your best, if you dream high enough and let nothing stop you from climbing all the way to the top of your particular mountain, then, even if it doesn’t work out, you are still fulfilled as a human being for having done your absolute best.”

Another producer, Len Amato, added: “As a story about overcoming obstacles, it can apply to any accomplishment where there’s always a certain amount of doubt and a chorus of naysayers—people who call you crazy because they don’t understand—you have to push through with your own vision to make something where there was nothing before.”

In The Astronaut Farmer, the government unmistakably is the major obstacle to such freedom and fulfillment.

With this kind of film, one expects a feel-good ending, and that’s exactly what is delivered. The individual pursuing his dream triumphs in the face of adversity and government interference. And we can all stand up and cheer.

But it is worth pausing a moment as the credits roll. There is a scene that raises the possibility that government might have a legitimate, limited role to play here, even from a libertarian perspective.

Farmer experiences a failed launch. But this wasn’t merely an abort of the mission. Instead, the engines fire and the rocket fails to get far off the ground, tips over and crashes. Part of the rocket, with Farmer inside, then streaks across the community, smashing through a billboard that says “Space Available.”

No one gets hurt except for Farmer himself. But the idea of an out-of-control rocket careening across the countryside does raise some issues about government’s role in protecting people and property.

While the government in this film is portrayed as inept, intrusive, and abusive (and that usually is quite justified), doesn’t government have some limited role to play regarding the safety of others, even if that means perhaps restraining the dreams of a guy with a rocket in his barn who wants to go to outer space?

In my view, the libertarian must answer this in the affirmative. Let’s consider what David Boaz wrote in a Cato Institute essay excerpted from his book Libertarianism: A Primer about the rule of law: “Libertarianism is not libertinism or hedonism. It is not a claim that ‘people can do anything they want to, and nobody else can say anything.’ Rather, libertarianism proposes a society of liberty under law, in which individuals are free to pursue their own lives so long as they respect the equal rights of others. The rule of law means that individuals are governed by generally applicable and spontaneously developed legal rules, not by arbitrary commands; and that those rules should protect the freedom of individuals to pursue happiness in their own ways, not aim at any particular result or outcome.”

The Astronaut Farmer, while perhaps a bit cartoonish in some of its characters, is not so when it comes to raising an issue with which libertarians have to wrestle. Where is the line drawn between one person’s pursuit of happiness and where that pursuit might infringe another’s rights?

  • Raymond J. Keating is an author and serves as Chief Economist with the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.