I’ve been listening to Julian Guthrie’s “How to Build a Spaceship” which tells the story of the X-Prize, the $10 million prize that helped kickstart the private space industry and transform the space program. It’s a compelling story with dozens of fascinating people, from Burt Rutan and Paul Allen (who ultimately won the prize) to John Carmack (who pioneered first-person shooters and funded Armadillo Aerospace that later won the Lunar Lander Challenge), that guy Elon Musk who built something called SpaceX (and declined to be either a backer or a participant) and Erik Lindbergh (of THE Lindbergh’s who helped the X-Prize get started and keep it funded).

What really struck me, though, was not the success of the X-Prize (which is somewhat hard to gauge) or the story of the prize itself, it was the motivation of almost everyone involved. They were all (and not just those in the United States) inspired by their childhood experience of NASA and the Apollo program. Given the nature of competition, perhaps you don’t think that’s surprising. But no other government program in our lifetime inspired so many people and drove them to invest not just words or money but the very heart of their lives into furthering the pursuit of a vision. In fact, it’s hard to think of another non-military government program in my lifetime that inspired anyone to anything.

This should tell us something interesting and even important about how a society can (and can’t) influence our decision-making, especially around the big, important and transformative decisions about what to do with your life and what kind of person you want to be. If you want a deep dive into what transformative experience is and the part it plays in decision-making and rationality theory, read this. Otherwise, here’s the shorthand version. Experience changes us. We think with connectionist brains, and it is the fundamental property of connection systems to change with experience. All experience changes us, but most experiences are like water over rocks. The change created is too small to notice and too slight to act upon. Some experiences, though, are fundamentally transformative. They will change the way we think and what we value. Experiences like having a baby, enlisting, choosing a career. Maybe even being a space nerd.

It is the essence of these experiences that who we are and what we value AFTER a transformative experience will be different. That’s a problem for decision theory (and decision-makers) because it makes thoughtful choice much harder. Transformative choices can’t be guided by the traditional model of rationality as preference satisfaction. We can’t use what we value to optimize decisions that will change what we value! Yet while that makes for difficult decision-making, it also implies some level of control over who we become and what we value. Given that experience changes who we are, by choosing between experiences, we can influence who we become.

If we are in a state of constant transformation, we are extraordinarily dependent on the society we live in to achieve our goals. There is no thinking about transformative experience except within the framework of a society. It is, after all, only from other lives that we can get any sense of what kind of life is possible and what sort of people we value. But our dependence does not end there, culture doesn’t just frame transformative decisions, it’s the engine of transformative experience.

Transformation is a response to experience, and most of our experience is the experience of other people. We are irrevocably social creatures. How other people react to us matters to all of us and matter enormously. It’s the primary driver of reinforcement learning and the main engine of transformative experience.

Society provides the framework from which transformative decisions are made and the engine by which they are carried through. It illuminates what’s possible and it provides either help or assistance by shaping the experiences we have.

The idea of a life independent of society is incoherent. A human can (like Crusoe) exist outside of society for a time. But no one can become an individual without society, and virtually any human project we have will require social validation and reinforcement. We cannot really become ANYTHING, much less who we want to become, except in the context of a specific society.

That’s why cultures of corruption where rewards do not match value are so deleterious. When society rewards people for reasons outside the things that create value, it eats at the very heart of transformation. The things that get reinforcement are not the things that should – creating a kind of character doom loop where the reinforcement provided by society makes worse people. And worse people, rather unsurprisingly, make society worse by further distorting the relationship between reward and value, consistently reinforcing the wrong things.

Matching rewards to real value may be the single most important facet of a healthy culture. That’s why capitalism is usually so much better and cleaner for a culture than managed alternatives. But no healthy society can be fully Pavlovian or capitalist. The more a culture focuses on the rewards of doing valuable work, the less the work itself begins to matter and we reinforce a brazen, material culture that turns virtues into vices and ambitious characters into charlatans.

The difference between Elon Musk and Donald Trump is profound. One has dreams that made him rich. The other just dreamed of being rich. Every society that generates wealth has its share of Donald Trumps. But the more the balance tips in favor of those who only value wealth, the worse society will be.  Nor is this just a question of what billionaire we like better. For every Elon Musk there are millions of productive engineers, builders, and entrepreneurs who were touched by some of the same dreams and values. And for every Donald Trump there is a similar legion of real-estate brokers, multi-level marketers, and crypto traders who have no values at all.

But while it would be utopian to imagine a society without those who simply pursue wealth, it’s by no means utopian to suggest that the balance shifts and can be shifted. Culture does change. What’s more, anyone who is seriously making decisions that involve transformation will have a stake in whether and to what extent public policy is concerned with that balance.

Is there a way to use public policy to shift that balance? The history of the X-Prize and the outsized impact of Apollo suggest that there is.

We are not used to thinking of public policy this way. As a culture, we have become increasingly unwilling to claim that some types of lives are better than others. This is both absurd and irrational. Absurd since no one believes or acts upon the claim of equality that this implies. We do not flip coins or use random decision-generators to choose our spouse, our friends, or our careers, and we do not like and admire everyone equally. Irrational because as transformational decision-makers, we are very much affected by the culture we live in and the people who constitute it.

Yet even if you accept that we have a real-stake in who our fellow-citizens are and what they value, it’s hard to use public policy to get people to focus on something other than rewards. Incentivizing creation in product or art through public means has rarely worked well except in times of extraordinary duress (e.g., war or natural disaster). Nowhere are art hucksters more prevalent than in the ranks of those who survive off government grants.

You cannot pay people to have interesting ambitions.

But the space program suggests that there is another type of public policy that, in its own way, can help leaven this tendency for reward to replace the creation of value in un-managed, capitalist societies.

Effective leadership in the public sector can harness latent cultural dreams and translate them into broader action and success. The race to the moon played extraordinarily well in a culture raised on a mythic sense of exploration and frontier. It’s no surprise that many of our most successful entrepreneurs turn their attention to space exploration when they can. People like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson drive private space exploration not because it’s profitable but because it was the dream of their youth. And it was dream inspired by a conscious, collective effort of public policy.

This doesn’t work for just any dream or ambition. Moonshots and X Prizes successfully encouraged the private exploration of space because space exploration fits well with a significant population of the underlying culture. To be successful, initiatives must both fire and fit the broader culture.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Public dreams should live comfortably atop the best of private culture. In a capitalist democracy, it’s essential to find and fuel some form of public initiative that will spark the imagination of youth and give them something beyond wealth or social media notoriety to strive for. Few of our leaders are good at this, but it’s probably the most important thing a democratic leader can achieve.

This firing of the imagination for some shared task is important not for its immediate results (we made it to the moon!), but for the imprint it leaves on people in society, the non-material aspirations it creates, and the change it influences in the broader culture.

At every level of society, we benefit by having more people who create value and fewer people who are parasites on value. And as citizens, we have a shared stake in creating that kind of society. Making better people is the ultimate goal of any society (it is the notion of better that is changeable). This is true simply because of the choices we must make. As decision-makers facing transformative choices and living through transformative experiences, we need certain kinds of people around us to make our lives and ourselves what we desire. The better the people around us, the better our life will be.

One of the saddest aspects of modern political discourse is that the people who are most critical of materialistic culture are often bitterly opposed to the rare occasions when public policy aspires to something that isn’t just material. It is sad that few conservatives (who ought to be natural conservationists) care much for environmental issues, and it is equally distressing that few liberals (who ought to be natural explorers) appreciate the dream of space.

It’s just one of the many incoherencies that rule our political discourse and one of the many ways that our current ideological camps ignore the real, human problems we face. In a society rich in packaged ideology, awash in overwrought materialism, and impoverished in values, people need worthwhile dreams. They need them more than almost anything else. Those dreams can help us make thoughtful transformative decisions and live better lives. Those dreams can steer our lives into valuable pathways and create better versions of ourselves.

Apollo changed and inspired a sizeable number of people in a generation for the better. That’s something that the public policies we fight over almost never achieve.