All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 2001

Wonders in Perspective

The Free Market Produces Wonders Far More Marvelous and Significant Than NASA Ever Has or Will

Do you ever wonder why the major news media cover NASA’s shuttle flights so extensively? I do.

Every time a shuttle launches or lands, several broadcast media cover these events live. And replays are shown on the evening news. Likewise, whenever a shuttle flight is in progress, we get regular reports on the news of the astronauts’ daily achievements. These events are reported as if they’re news. But they’re not.

Walking on the moon was news—Alan Shepard’s and John Glenn’s first space flights were news—the first shuttle flight was news—the Challenger tragedy was news. These and some other of NASA’s achievements (and failures) were genuinely newsworthy events. But the shuttle has flown regularly now for 20 years, with no serious problems since Challenger exploded in 1986.

Despite their continuing and extensive coverage by the news media, shuttle flights are no longer newsworthy.

When I first noticed myself being piqued at the coverage of non-newsworthy shuttle flights, I scolded myself. “Although seemingly routine,” I thought, “let’s face it: each shuttle flight is a spectacular achievement. These flights are not as routine and mundane as they now appear. We just think that they’re mundane because the skill, the science, the engineering, and the organizational coordination that make each flight possible happen so regularly—itself a remarkable achievement! Perhaps CNN and other news outlets deserve praise for reminding us that, despite appearing to be ho-hum, each shuttle flight is a marvel.”

But my self-scolding was inappropriate. My initial annoyance at shuttle-flight coverage is, in fact, justified. Successful shuttle flights are not newsworthy events in our world.

It’s true, of course, that each shuttle flight is a marvelous achievement of human ingenuity—scientific and organizational—but our world is a barrage of similar achievements, almost all of which we regard as mundane and not the least bit newsworthy. There’s nothing so special about shuttle flights to distinguish them from any of the cornucopia of other wonders that we encounter daily.

Is the flight of a shuttle a greater wonder than the flight of a Boeing 747? Each time a 747-400 takes off, 437 tons of steel, plastic, cloth, fuel, cargo, and people rise gracefully into the sky. Meals are served and movies are watched. Passengers eat, sleep, work, sip cocktails, relax, and chit-chat as if whizzing through the air seven miles above the earth’s surface at nearly 600 miles per hour is among the most natural of human situations.

But the science, technology, and organizational coordination required for every jetliner flight is indeed wondrous. And yet, the news media don’t report on each take-off and landing of jetliners.

Is a shuttle flight more wondrous than lasik surgery? Every time lasik surgery takes place, a patient’s vision is improved by a laser beam used to reshape the delicate lens of a human eye. The human ingenuity, skill, and knowledge required to make each instance of lasik surgery possible is immense. And yet, the news media don’t report on each operation of this kind.

Is a shuttle flight more remarkable than the fact that nutritious, delicious, safe, and inexpensive food and drink are available in Manhattan 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year? The amount of human creativity, organizational effort, and technological achievements that make possible the routine, on-demand feeding of Manhattanites is staggering. Every day, people from around the country and the world employ their talents and their energies to ensure that New York is fed. But the news media don’t report the regular feeding of Manhattan.

Is a shuttle flight more remarkable than the magazine that you now hold in your hands? Examine it closely. You’re holding 32 sheets of paper bound within a heavier stock paper that serves as the cover. On each page is ink. Some handful of people—I don’t know who they are or where they live—worked to extract the dyes necessary to make this ink. Another group of people felled the trees for the wood pulp necessary to make the paper. Another group of people extracted the minerals required to make the staples that hold the magazine together. And yet other people engineered the software used by each of the authors to compose his or her article—and on and on and on and on. The very magazine you now hold in your hands is the product of the voluntary cooperation of millions of people from around the world. The amount of creativity, ingenuity, knowledge, and organization required to bring this magazine to you is astonishingly vast. But you won’t hear a television news anchor this evening report that you and thousands of other readers successfully received this month’s beautiful issue of Ideas on Liberty. It’s not news.

Our world is one of wonders—wonders of human creation and cooperation. Indeed, it’s a wonder that these wonders are so familiar to us that we see them as banalities.

I don’t blame the news media for not reporting each day that jetliners took off and landed successfully, that thousands of surgical operations took place, that Manhattan is fed, or that magazines are produced and delivered with boring regularity. But I do blame the news media for singling out NASA’s achievements by reporting them as if they were more newsworthy than are the countless magnificent achievements that are woven into the lives of the extraordinarily fortunate citizens of modern, industrial society.

Evening news anchors and high-school science teachers might take exception to this claim, but I say it sincerely: the free market produces many more wonders—and wonders far more marvelous and significant—than have ever been, or will ever be, produced by NASA. One look around your everyday world will prove it.

Donald J. Boudreaux will become chairman of the economics department at George Mason University on August 1, 2001. In commenting on his departure from FEE, Dr. Boudreaux said, “I have cherished my four years in Irvington and the opportunity to advance the work started by Leonard Read. Even before I became president, I was an enthusiastic supporter of FEE, writing for the magazine and commending the Foundation’s work to my students. I hope to continue my relationship with FEE in some capacity, as my work at GMU allows.”

For important news concerning the presidential search, see p. 62 of this issue.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.