Lockheed Martin thinks it may just about have a handle on this nuclear-fusion thing, but the U.S. government cannot manage to keep Ebola patients off a flight to Cleveland. Sometimes, you simply must hate the 21st century.
Lockheed’s announcement about its ambitious fusion project, which if successful would represent a fundamental economic and technological shift for the entire world, is the sort of thing that makes one pause to consider the possibilities. The end product would be a relatively compact (small enough to haul on a semi) reactor that could with a few pounds of fuel and no emissions power aircraft and spacecraft that effectively never need refueling, transform and decentralize power grids, and do much more. The libertarian in me is tempted to say, “Aha! There’s your private sector in action!” and to prepare my soul to enjoy the spectacle of people who are terrified about carbon dioxide emissions prostrating themselves before Lockheed’s research team. But Lockheed Martin isn’t really the private sector; it is year in and year out the federal government’s largest contractor, and federal contracts account for about three-fourths of its revenue. It relies on a government-dominated enterprise, the universities, for its most important input, raw brainpower.
But if one is willing to let up on the ideological rigidity, the Lockheed outcome is a pretty good one: The firm is largely engaged in helping the federal government provide a legitimate public good — defense — and it does so in a competitive market, throwing off a raft of profits and some very cool innovation in the process. If everything that government had a hand in looked like MIT, DARPA, and Skunk Works shenanigans, it would not be a perfect outcome, by any measure, but it would be a pretty good one. For all of the waste and excess in defense appropriations and contracting, and despite the occasional outbreak of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper–ism in the commanding echelons, there is a sense that this represents government doing what it is intended to be doing, and doing it relatively well.
It may be that Lockheed’s fusion project comes to naught; many great minds and powerful enterprises have foundered upon those particular shoals. On the other hand, that technology might be powering a Mars colony or vast desalination projects by the time today’s kindergartners are old enough to drink. If I’ve learned anything from my excursions into retro-futurism, it is that the safest prediction about the future is that it will look a great deal like the present, but the ways in which it is radically different will be counterintuitive and generally utilitarian, not the sexy things everybody expects: You don’t get flying cars, you get Facebook.
It is easy to get the upside wrong, and even easier to get the downside wrong; for an example, review Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden’s originally celebrated, and subsequently mocked, 1997 Wired essay “The Long Boom,” which was in many way correct about the general trends that would shape the early 21st century but wrong on most of the particulars. Its excessive optimism on the subjects of alternative energy and biotechnology is not impossible to defend, but what looks considerably worse in retrospect is its weak grasp of non-technological factors such as Islamic totalitarianism, Russia’s retreat into autocracy, and the persistent toxin of Chinese nationalism — and, as important, the interaction of those non-technological factors with new technology. Instant, frictionless communication makes the world smaller for MIT’s selection of online courses, and for jihadists, too. Cheap international travel means that it’s a small world after all — for Ebola.
The Right has had a good deal of fun this week mocking all of the things that our federal health czars have been paying attention to in recent years rather than horrifying threats such as Ebola — e.g., figuring out why lesbians are commonly fat but gay men aren’t, stopping us from bringing home cheese from France but not Ebola from Liberia, etc. But that could very well turn un-funny in short order. It is impossible to tell what will happen with Ebola here or abroad, and the flapping of this viral butterfly’s wings represents one of those high-stakes rolls of history’s dice, the outcome of which cannot be anticipated. Consider such human, economic, and cultural catastrophes as the Great War, HIV, or Communism: None of those was the obvious outcome of a foreseeable chain of events. Neither Karl Marx nor Gavrilo Princip, to say nothing of that unknown chimpanzee hunter, could have imagined where the currents of history in which they were wading would end up taking us.
I am a long-term optimist, but the politics of fear gets a bad rap. Conservatives and progressives both understand in our bones that — for better and for worse — the world is an uncertain and unpredictable place, and full of dangers as well as unforeseen delights. For the Left, mitigating those risks means mostly offering social-welfare guarantees; for the Right, risk-mitigation means preferring to have a military whose capabilities exceed those of the rest of the world combined several times over. Each of those tendencies runs into problems as it interacts with economic and political realities, and the terrifying thing that must be understood is that those Lockheed contracts — along with the nuclear arsenal and the rest of our national security — are in the hands of the same class of people and institutions responsible for our feckless response to Ebola’s arrival on our shores, a fact that would if well appreciated liberate us from any temptation toward ideological complacency.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.