Friday, February 09, 2007

Science and State

Tibor R. Machan

By now it has become predictable that each time a new president of the USA is elected, the letters sections of major newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, fill up with pleas from various professionals who believe that their services must not be left to the uncertain, volatile forces of the market place. Instead, they must be assured of funding by the government, via coercion, taxation.

If memory serves me right, the loudest bunch of folks who advance this plea are scientists of all stripes—natural, social, applied, you name them, they are in line with their hands reaching out, expecting to have the benefits of coerced funding because, well, what they are doing is so vital and so few people appreciate this that the money just cannot be expected to come voluntarily. Never mind that everyone can cook up this rationale for innumerable projects, personal, professional, political, philanthropic, whatever. Too many of us are convinced that on our agenda are gathered the most profound and urgent items, while other people’s priorities can certainly wait. Or so it would appear, given how the scientists line up to demand special treatment. It has become so bad that what might be deemed special is now indeed the norm—nearly everyone wants to escape having to convince the public of the merits of his or her projects, to go about raising support in a civilized, peaceful way. Instead nearly all seem to be convinced that support is due them automatically, that the allocation of funds based on the extortion that is taxation is what they are entitled to.

There are a few folks who have argued against funding sciences, let alone other endeavors, in this coercive fashion but they are by no means many. Terrence Kealey, in his book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (Macmillan, 1996) is one of the few and his efforts to defend a free market in funding of research and development quickly came under criticism from those who want to continue with the now well established practice of exempting the sciences from having to make their case without the benefit of political clout. (I edited a book not long ago, Liberty & Research and Development [Hoover Institution Press, 2002], in which this topic is debated by the various contributors.)

But here my focus is not so much whether it is just to have science—or, indeed, any other human endeavor—supported coercively. I am convinced that it is not except where science supports bona fide law enforcement and defense against foreign aggression. Just as in the criminal law, force may only be used defensively, not to achieve various goals that may not be popular with enough people for them to gain support. But another aspect of this matter has become evident to me, although I speak about it as an amateur. I have in mind whether all this funding of science by coercive means isn’t actually having a corrupting effect.

Over the last twenty years or so I have been an avid reader of the little weekly magazine, Science News, which carries many reports of recent and current work in most of the sciences. And what I have noticed is that a great deal of what is being done just has no plausible relevance to anything at all except that it interests the scientists doing the work. This is easy enough to appreciate when it comes to various obscure studies in astrophysics or paleontology, for example. Why are millions and millions of dollars taken from citizens and handed to these professionals to produce findings that, well, are little more than curiosity items? Yes, they might turn into something more and there is plenty of evidence in the history of science that the results of work motivated by nothing more than curiosity eventually turn out to be useful. Good, but that means at best that we have been lucky—it does not imply any kind of imperative for the coercive support of such curiosity, none, nor that the bulk of it bears fruit for all those who are coerced to fund them!

I am willing to bet that if some God’s eye perspective could be found—an impossible idea, I admit—a very great deal of what scientists spend money on could be used better if left for the taxpayers to spend on projects of their own. But because the idea is so foreign, it seems evident that the way the politicians and bureaucrats allocate the funds is best. But there really is no good reason to think so.

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