Government Funding for Scientific Research - a summary

As some of you may be aware, over the last couple of weeks Timothy Sandefur and I had a debate on our blogs on the topic of government funding for scientific research. He argued against it; I argued for it. We wrapped up the debate yesterday. If you're interested in taking a look at the whole thing, I've put links to all of the posts in the debate (in chronological order) below the fold.


Sandefur's opening post
Sandefur's reply to some of the comments about his opening post
My reply
Sandefur's second post
My reply
Sandefur's third post
My reply
Sandefur's final post
My concluding thoughts

19 responses so far

  • Spike says:

    The trouble is, any of the claims made for the short-sightedness of people in private business apply exactly as much to the people in government office. Unless one is going to claim that the people in government are somehow morally superior to those who choose to work in business. If so, I would like to see an argument supporting that claim that does not rely on supernatural forces.
    In the end, all I got from the pro-government-support-of-science-side was: "We like it and there are more of us than there are of you, so tough. And, btw, all you libertarians are evil, anti-poor idiots."

  • Marion Delgado says:

    Spike:
    Yes, but that's because you read and reason poorly.

  • Spike says:

    Go for that ad hominem. Thanks.
    I am willing to be educated, even by someone who prefers to use personal attacks rather than argumentation.
    Please show me which of the arguments made by Mike Dunford and the commentors result in a logical, moral support of government's involvement in funding science *without* ultimately relying on "majority rule, and if you don't like it vote for someone else."
    One of the main thread of Timothy Sandefur's arguments was that, while there are many people who believe that they have the right to use government funding to support their interest in science and its products, because other people have different priorities, it is not morally right to take money from those people to pay for your dreams.
    If you do, however, consider the "majority rule" argument to be sufficient, I respectfully request that you provide rational arguments as to why those who designed our government were incorrect in setting up a system is meant to protect the minority from the whims of the mob.
    What I got from Sandefur's arguments is that we are in the position we are in with respect to government funding of science (and, to my mind, other excesses of government involvement in the lives of its citizens) precisely because those who work in our government, and those who continually elect them, have gotten used to the idea of "majority rule" without much consideration of the differing wants and needs of the minority.
    Looking forward to it.
    Thanks,
    Spike

  • Spike says:

    This discussion that DrgMonkey and others are in provides a "hot off the presses" example of the downside of using government politics to decide how to spend your money and mine on science:
    http://scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey/2009/02/shovel_ready_jobs_jobs_jobs.php

  • Frank J says:

    My 2c:
    I would like to see dramatic increases in funding for scientific research, especially basic research, regardless of where the funding comes from. Of course this will not happen via private or public sector unless there's a dramatic increase in the value people place on science. Don't get me wrong, I know that most people enjoy its "fruits" but they usually want someone else to do the "planting."

  • eric says:

    First, thank you both for an interesting exchange.
    Spike:

    The trouble is, any of the claims made for the short-sightedness of people in private business apply exactly as much to the people in government office.

    Yes exactly. You've just proclaimed some equivalency in doing things via public or private funding. So if a community chooses to use the method of public funding vs. private funding, they have that right, yes?
    Spike continues:

    If you do, however, consider the "majority rule" argument to be sufficient, I respectfully request that you provide rational arguments as to why those who designed our government were incorrect in setting up a system is meant to protect the minority from the whims of the mob.

    There is a difference between protecting minorities from the whims of the majority and requiring 100% consensus on every decision. Libertarianism does the latter: it requires every individual to consent to a community decision before that decision applies to them. That's not democracy: democracy says every individual gets an equal voice, not that every individual has an absolute veto power over the laws of the community. If every individual has a veto over community legislation, you effectively have no laws.
    Moreover most Libertarians are at least willing the entertain community coersion (i.e. the involuntary taking of your money) in the case of the common defense. Tim Sandefur does. But this concession quickly dissolves the entire Libertarian stance. Who decides what counts as common defense? Well, if its each individual, then the common defense exception is meaningless because we are right back to no taking without consent. If its the community via elected leaders, then the community can decide to take your money for something you don't agree is in your common defense, and we end up with a government like the one we have now. Can 'strict construction' get us out of it? Not really. If you want to limit what counts as "common defense" to an 18th Century understanding, then you're going to be stuck with cannon, muskets, and cavalry. That's no good. We need the ability to adapt the common defense...which loops us right back to the question of who decides what counts: community or individual?

  • Spike says:

    eric,
    Thanks for attempting a reasoned response. I will do the same, but first I must take issue with one point:
    You wrote "Libertarianism does..." I really, really dislike it when people tell me what I believe as a libertarian, especially when that person is not a libertarian themselves. I try to avoid presuming what those who espouse other political philosophies believe - other than what they tell me - because I do not pretend that all those who claim to be liberal think the same, or those who claim to be conservative, or greens or socialists.
    When people start using language such as "you think.." then they are not talking to me, they are talking to themsleves and I know that any input I will attempt into the conversation will be ignored.
    Thanks.
    "A community chooses..." a community does not choose. People, individuals in the community choose. There may be a large number of people in the community who choose the same thing at a particular time, but to say, "a community chooses" unless every member of the community chooses the exact same thing is to make a claim to moral authority that is just not there, in my opinion. Are those who choose differently not part of the community? Do they no longer have rights just because they choose differently?
    More later...

  • eric says:

    Spike:

    There may be a large number of people in the community who choose the same thing at a particular time, but to say, "a community chooses" unless every member of the community chooses the exact same thing is to make a claim to moral authority that is just not there, in my opinion.

    Ah, it sounds like you are of the opinion that the Constitution is immoral because it allows elected representatives to make resource allocation decisions for you that you might not agree with. It also sounds like you do not agree that there should be any taxation to provide for the common defense, since the government has no moral authority to take your money without your consent under any circumstances.
    If I'm wrong about that, then I would just ask one question: who decides under what circumstances the government is allowed to take your money - i.e. for common defense?
    a) Do you decide? That's the same as no exception, no government authority to take.
    b) Does an elected official decide? That's what we have now.
    c) Does the Constitution decide? This answer just leads to the question of who decides what the Constitution says. So you're back to picking a or b.
    Or is there another solution I haven't thought of? If so, please mention it! But keep in mind that I won't think very highly of a response that amounts to 'I don't like the current system but I won't offer a replacement.'

  • Spike says:

    eric,
    I said no such thing. What I said was that claiming that "a cummunity" believes x, y or z, assumes a mantle of morality that is more than justified. It's not even close to meaning that the USC is immoral for designating elected representatives to take some, very few, actions on our behalf.
    The problem is not that elected officials decide to take our money for certain uses, but that they have decided to take our money for too many uses.
    That is where the immorality creeps in. Some applications of taxation are not entirely bad - defense spending (actual defense spending), police forces and fire and safety spending. Some applications of taxation are entirely evil - unwarranted wars, imprisoning otherwise innocent people for either smoking marijuana or not being "sane enough," kicking people off their land to build shopping malls.
    Ultimately, we decide, but somewhere along the line, we got into this downward spiral of "if a little government spending is good, more must be better."
    And somewhere along the line, we allowed the people in government to separate themelseves from the rest of us. When I wrote to my congress-critters opposing the first bailout package, the response I got from one was, "I don't like this plan at all, but we have to do something!"
    Isn't that like your doc telling you, "I don't like taking your arm for that infection on your finger, but we have to do something!"?

  • eric says:

    Spike said:

    The problem is not that elected officials decide to take our money for certain uses, but that they have decided to take our money for too many uses.
    That is where the immorality creeps in.

    Okay, fine. You still didn't really answer my key questions: who decides whether a use is legitimate or not? And what change are you calling for?
    I understand your points. But so far you've only offered a bell the cat argument - long on wishes for a better government, short on specifics of how to achieve one. The argument for the status quo is that this government structure may not be great but its the best we've been able to come up with. You can't counter that argument simply by pointing out how imperfect it is. To argue against "best so far" you have to show you have a better alternative. But you've offered none.
    Right now elected officials decide what counts as a legitimate use of taxes. This power is checked by the separation of powers into a bicameral lesilature (both of which must agree), an executive veto, the Supreme Court's right to decide what the Constitution says, and the people's ultimate power to vote those officials out of office if they don't do what the people want. How do you propose we change this system to reduce the uses for which taxes are collected?

  • Moses says:

    The trouble is, any of the claims made for the short-sightedness of people in private business apply exactly as much to the people in government office. Unless one is going to claim that the people in government are somehow morally superior to those who choose to work in business. If so, I would like to see an argument supporting that claim that does not rely on supernatural forces.
    In the end, all I got from the pro-government-support-of-science-side was: "We like it and there are more of us than there are of you, so tough. And, btw, all you libertarians are evil, anti-poor idiots."
    Posted by: Spike | February 24, 2009 2:50 PM

    Your presuppositions and philosophy doom you to a life of ignorant bliss. Corporations (business) are virtually all short-term and profit motivated in their behavior.
    For example, it would make SENSE for the Railroads to get together and design and build high-speed rail to go in the heavier trafficked corridors... Yet... Bupkis...
    I could go on. The list is practically endless of smart, long-term endeavors that corporations (businesses) don't and won't do in order to prosper in the long-term. But you couldn't accept it because your brain has been poisoned with Libertarianism.
    Life is not a Heinlein/Rand novel. And people do not behave that way.

  • eric says:

    Spike said:

    When I wrote to my congress-critters opposing the first bailout package, the response I got from one was, "I don't like this plan at all, but we have to do something!"

    Isn't that like your doc telling you, "I don't like taking your arm for that infection on your finger, but we have to do something!"?

    Spike,
    Don't you see that you're doing the same thing? Your argument consists of, 'I don't like this government, so we have to do something!' And then not saying what that something is.

  • SLC says:

    I have not followed this discussion so I don't know what the various arguments that have been raised are. However, let me pose the following question to the opponents of government funding of scientific research. Do they believe that private enterprise would have been willing to build the Large Hadron Collider and finance experiments to be performed therein? Somehow, I doubt that the answer would be affirmative.

  • Spike says:

    eric,
    You were the one who cliamed I should come up with an alternative. I never said I would. I like government as it was designed. What I don't like is how we have allowed ourselves to rely so heavily on it, rather than working directly with each other to solve most of the problems that are passed off to government.
    If there is no chance for "public opinion" to move in a direction of smaller, more efficient government and more power directly exercised through citizen action, then you are all correct, we libertarians ought to just sit down and shut up.
    There is, however, no disagreement that people in America have pushed more and more of what they used to do quite well for themselves over to government, and there is no disagreement that when government does things, it is inefficient and has negative connotations that often outweigh the benefits. Businesses often make big mistakes or work "evil" (in somebody's assesment) but, if not for government protection, we, you and I, would be able to do more about it.
    Governemtns are just as likely to start wars that kill innocents as they are to force people who will never dreive any benefit from the results to pay for SLC's dream of a Large Hadron Collider.
    Also, I hope Moses can describe to me the long term benefits of the US invasion of Iraq. If Moses claims "people do not behave that way" then I have to wonder who it is that has kept Sears, Tower Publishing, Stroh's Brewery, Towle Silver and other companies going for over 100 years, if not the people in them who have looked to the long term, that is.
    (PS "Heinlein/Rand novels" - is that a publishing house? I've heard of Rand Corp and Remington-Rand and Random House companies, but never Heinlein/Rand.)

  • eric says:

    Spike,
    I confess that after your last post I don't see any argument at all. You seem to agree that elected officials have the right to decide what counts as "common defense," and the right to decide when to take your money against your will for purposes like common defense. You don't seem to think there was anything illegal or unconstitutional about the way they were elected. So, whether moral or not, their taking of your money is constitutional.
    So, I will (hopefully?) end with this last comment. I happily support your right to create a grassroots movement to elect officials that think like you do. And if you win the ability to sway Congress, I will accept that you changed the tax law fair and square. But I won't vote for such folks. Because what has been continuously lacking from all of your posts is any positive argument about the benefits of a different way of doing business. Sure, yes, you don't have to provide such an argument. You're right, you never said you would. But at least in my opinion, your argument for change is extremely unconvincing without it.

  • Troublesome Frog says:

    Spike:

    The trouble is, any of the claims made for the short-sightedness of people in private business apply exactly as much to the people in government office.

    I don't think that the argument is necessarily that business is more short-sighted than government. I think that the real argument is that the incentives are simply different. If I'm a business and I'm deciding whether to engage in basic research, I want to know whether my business will get its money's worth. That requires a few things:
    1) The research must have a reasonably high probability of success. Or at least, the expected payout over lots of such projects has to be positive and larger than other possible investments.
    2) The time horizon for that net positive to become a near guarantee has to be short enough that I can start playing that game without becoming insolvent. You can't start a casino with $1000, but if you have enough cash, it's a great way to make money.
    3) I, personally, need to be able to guzzle up enough of the benefit from that research to make condition (1) true. If I discover something brilliant that I can't use but somebody else could, I may be able to make some cash if it's patentable, but likely as not, I'll never even know that's the case.
    If (1) is generally not true, nobody should be engaging in basic research. I think that we're all in general agreement that basic research globally has a net positive value over the long haul. If that's the case, reasonably well-administered basic research by the government meets all three of those conditions:
    1) We've already agreed that it's net positive.
    2) Government time horizons are very long and we're essentially spreading the risk of all research across all players, so the government is more perfect here than any private entity could be.
    3) Likewise, if the product of such research becomes public domain, it's guaranteed that the work product will be put to its best possible use. This guarantee does not exist if the work product is held privately.
    Basically, government is a way of spreading out the risk of a very high-risk high-reward endeavor and reaping the benefits over time. No stupidity or clairvoyance is required.

  • william e emba says:

    There is, however, no disagreement that people in America have pushed more and more of what they used to do quite well for themselves over to government,

    You are just making things up. Some people, for example, did "quite well for themselves" when it came to planning for unemployment and retirement. Some people did not.

    and there is no disagreement that when government does things, it is inefficient

    Again, you are just making things up. There are things that government does efficiently without these drawbacks, and some things it does not. A modern example is medical insurance. The overhead costs of US Medicare are about 5%, contrasted with private insurances costs of about 15%.
    And how about that highly efficient private industry volcano monitoring?

    and has negative connotations that often outweigh the benefits.

    "Connotations"? Seriously, why don't you just stick your tongue out at your screen instead of just utter lameness.
    Oh, weight, did you mean "consequences"? Well, if the best you can do is come up with weasel words, "often outweigh", you've come up with nothing. Stick you tongue out and make a rude noise!

    Businesses often make big mistakes or work "evil" (in somebody's assesment)

    Nice convenient hypocrisy there. Business is at worst "evil", in "somebody's assessment", but when it comes to government, there's "no disagreement". So far, your argument consists of making things up and saying everyone agrees with you.

    but, if not for government protection, we, you and I, would be able to do more about it.

    You are one incredibly ignorant git, aren't you? Corporations are all about government protection. The limited liability corporation was invented in the mid-19th century. For a few bucks, anybody could now engage in all sorts of fraudulent and downright toxic behavior, and was almost entirely immune. The late 19th and early 20th century was characterized by a race to the bottom as governments competed to see how much they were willing to cede to corporations as independent powers.
    What it boils down to is when the government overtly costs you something, this is intolerable, but when a corporation costs me something covertly, this is glorious? Feh.
    For the record, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill did not sing the praises of limited liability corporations.

  • william e emba says:

    To add to Troublesome Frog's reasons why sometimes government is more efficient than the free market, consider spillovers. Research typically helps everybody, not just the researcher. Where, exactly, is the profit motive in helping your competitor?
    Yes, private research occurs, and is quite extensive. But overall, access to it is severely cramped.

  • SLC says:

    Re Spike
    Governemtns are just as likely to start wars that kill innocents as they are to force people who will never dreive any benefit from the results to pay for SLC's dream of a Large Hadron Collider.
    Apparently, Mr. Spike is the incarnation of Nostradamus. He confidently makes the prediction that research results from experiments performed at the Large Hadron Supercollider will never benefit any of the taxpayers who provided the funds to build it. Ignorance truly is bliss.