Science and Freedom

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“Sixteen
Nobel Laureates in Physics and sixteen industry leaders have written
to President George W. Bush to urge increasing funding for physical
sciences, environmental sciences, mathematics, computer science,
and engineering.” So starts an article in the American Physical
Society newsletter. It goes on to argue that “unless remedied, [the
funding problems] will affect our scientific and technological leadership,
thereby affecting our economy and national security.” Now let us
overlook for the moment the obvious fawning over “national security”.
Everything these days affects national security (which means that
the government is afraid of everything), hence every petition
to the state for cash must mention this important “issue”. Surely,
President George W. Bush, the great and powerful man, understands
the seriousness of the situation with respect to this no doubt trifling
problem of insufficient funding and will fix it as soon as it is
brought to his attention. What the wicked bureaucrats have maliciously
overlooked, our wise and compassionate God-king will immediately
correct.

Very
well, but what is the rationale for the state to fund and even initiate
its own research and development efforts? The official objections
to laissez-faire run as follows.

Objection
1. Suppose that such and such theorem is proven or that such
and such discovery is made thanks to government funding. Now the
results are available to all, free of charge. Surely, knowledge
does not need to be economized, hence the more people are in possession
of it, the better. Only the government can ensure that no private
individual can selfishly keep some piece of knowledge secret. Let
the benefits of scientific exploration be spread far and wide.

It
is true, this objection continues, that if all subsidies to science
and technology were to cease, that the money thereby freed would
be available for other uses. But such spending nevertheless makes
us richer, and most people would prefer to live in a society in
which the government spends money on physics and math than in one
in which it does not.

Objection
2. Further, it may be that the external benefits of a scientific
discovery are such that they in some sense outweigh the costs of
the subsidy. Such is alleged to be the case with government agencies
such as the Centers for Disease Control or with government efforts
to develop a car engine that produces lower emissions compared to
the internal combustion engine.

Objection
3. Further, the doctrine of Merchantilism posits that protecting
domestic industries against foreign competition is the path towards
prosperity. If true, then subsidizing R&D is no different than corporate
welfare of any other kind and is beneficial to the nation.

On
the contrary, It is unjust to take private money by force from
those who are not willing to indulge the scientists’ desire to search
for abstract knowledge or to produce some amorphous positive externalities.

I
answer that, As Murray Rothbard has pointed out in Man,
Economy, and State
, it is the available capital that determines
the rate of economic growth:

…the limits at any time on investment and productivity are a
scarcity of saved capital, not the state of technological
knowledge. In other words, there is always an unused shelf of
technological projects available and idle. This is demonstable
by the fact that a new invention is not immediately and instantaneously
adopted by all firms in the society… [M]ost entrepreneurs are
not innovators, but are in the process of investing capital within
a large framework of available technological opportunities. Supply
of product is limited by supply of capital goods rather than by
available technological know-how.

It
is probably true that too much research is being produced in physics
and math, as it is
in economics
.

Reply
to objection 1. We do not in fact know whether or not having
X number of physicists is better for the whole nation than having
Y number of physicists because the government cannot engage in economic
calculation. It is likely, however, that in physics, like in any
other state-subsidized enterprise, there is vast overproduction
of research.

Reply
to objection 2. Occasionally government discoveries do get picked
up by the private sector, but what governments are most interested
in are technologies that destroy person and property, control, and
imprison. Private individuals have few uses for such machinery.

Murray
Rothbard once argued that the government should not be allowed to
collect economic statistics so that it becomes blind and incapable
of attempting centrally to plan the economy. Why not prevent it
from collecting scientific statistics and data as well, including
that which comes from biological research? This way we reduce our
chances of dying from the state’s biological weapons.

As
far as cars are concerned, it should be noted that the government’s
preoccupation with lower emissions actually detracts from the task
of creating a superior energy source. It is impossible to predict
where the next breakthrough comes from. The future car engines may
be based on technology whose production of low emissions is merely
a small benefit compared to its other virtues, such as greater efficiency
or low cost. The resources spent by the government on such research
are best left in the hand of private investors and entrepreneurs.

Reply
to objection 3. Mercantilism, Ludwig von Mises writes, is the
doctrine that “the gain of one man is the damage of another; no
man profits but by the loss of others… is entirely wrong with
regard to any kind of entrepreneurial profit or loss, whether they
emerge in a stationary economy in which the total amount of profits
equals the total amount of losses or in a progressing or a retrogressing
economy in which these two magnitudes are different” (emphasis removed).

In
sum, in a free society freedom ought to extend to scientific research
as well.

July
24, 2003

Dmitry
Chernikov [send him
mail
] lives New York City.


        
        

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