The Questionable Authority

Tim Sandefur and I don’t agree about the proper role of government when it comes to funding scientific research. He fairly strongly believes that there are many reasons why it’s wrong for the government to fund scientific research. Tim’s provided a number of reasons to support his belief, and I agreed to use my blog as a platform to make my own case for the involvement of government in science.

In the abstract, many of the reasons that the government should not be involved in funding research sound fairly compelling. Unfortunately, those arguments were made on the internet. At the end of the day, the medium undercut the message.

We use research to facilitate new kinds of commerce, and to improve everyone’s day to day lives. It’s a part of our infrastructure, every bit as much as roads and bridges are. Providing for infrastructure of various sorts has been considered to be one of the functions of the government for centuries (if not longer), and for good reason:

The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.

Adam Smith

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

There are different kinds of research that fall into the broad category outlined above for different reasons.

Some of the research that the government funds – including a lot of basic biomedical work – falls into the category of high-risk, high-gain research. Many, if not most, of the projects funded will ultimately turn out to have no practical, profitable application, some will turn out to be hugely beneficial, and there’s no real way to know ahead of time which will be which. Unless you have the ability to fund a large number of projects, it’s probably going to be to your disadvantage to get involved in funding this sort of thing. In this case, government funding lets us spread out the risks. When the basic research reaches a point where very promising areas are identified, the risks decrease enough that it becomes reasonable for private firms to step in – and they frequently do. Spreading out the risk stimulates private commerce and it reduces the time that it takes to develop things that will benefit large numbers of people.

Other research – including a lot of basic physics research – has no predictable commercial benefit. But that’s not the same as no possible commercial benefit. When we fund this sort of research, we reduce our ignorance about the universe we inhabit (and I think that alone is in the public interest), but we also often open up new lines of knowledge that lead to new advances in technology with enormous benefits down the line. I doubt that anyone could have predicted, at the time, the effect that the discovery of the electron would ultimately have on the world.

A third set of research – which includes some environmental research – may have, at least in the short term, a detrimental effect on commerce, but still be very much in the public interest. Few companies find researching the possible long-term effects their activities might have on their surroundings and neighbors to be commercially beneficial. But that doesn’t mean that such research is not in the overall public interest. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, the right to swing a fist ends where the other man’s nose begins. Research into these areas is how we, the people, figure out just where our nose begins.

There’s little doubt that our current system of government is – at best – an imperfect means for dealing with funding scientific research. Ultimately, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, involves people. And people are human beings, with all of the attendant foibles and imperfections that go along with membership in Homo sapiens. To paraphrase Churchill, government’s the worst way to fund basic scientific research – except for everything else we’ve tried. That’s not a very idealistic way to look at things, but when it comes to things like this I’m not much of an idealist.

Comments

  1. #1 harold
    February 10, 2009

    Nice post.

    Something I should have mentioned on PT –

    Debating whether there should be “any” federal funding of research almost has the feel of an artificial, high school debate.

    Neither major political party has a suggestion to reduce research funding to zero in its platform.

    The most prominent independent in the US government, Senator Bernie Sanders, does not advance the proposal that research funding be reduced to zero.

    The most developed “third party”, the Green Party, does not support reducing research funding to zero.

    Even the most prominent failed independent candidate, Ralph Nader (sometimes associated with the Green Party) does not support reducing research funding to zero.

    The vast majority of American voters would oppose the idea.

    As Timothy Sandefur notes, the supreme court has overwhelming rejected the argument that federal funding for things like research is “unconstitutional”.

    Furthermore, if all research funding were cut off on “constitutional” grounds, the policy would be so unpopular that it is highly plausible that a constitutional amendment could be passed to remedy the situation.

    Although inadequate research funding may be a potential problem, the idea of reducing it to zero is a sterile fantasy.

  2. #2 Flint
    February 10, 2009

    Sandefur writes:

    “The basic problem here that because all economic value is inherently personal, it cannot be said that any coercive overriding of my personal prioritization is efficient.”

    But of course it can. Does the highway system provide me personal economic value? Absolutely. Do I get any personal benefit from paying taxes to educate other peoples’ children, since I have none of my own? Absolutely.

    “If Congress had power to act for the “general welfare” there would be no need to list Congress’ powers in Article I section 8, since they would be redundant of Congressional authority to do whatever was in the general welfare. Thus the general welfare language cannot be seen as a separate grant of authority without committing the error of surplusage.”

    In political science circles, this sort of argument has a long tradition. Essentially, Sandefur makes a formalistic argument, about the scope (and intent) of specific language written into the Constitution. This is generally countered with the notion of flexible and contingent power – whether genuine public benefit should be foregone, despite near-universal public desire for that benefit, because the Constitution failed to predict and specify all possible benefits centuries into the future. Sandefur may disagree with two+ centuries of Supreme Court interpretations (which meet with near-universal approval), but his disapproval is fortunately obsolete.

    To put it another way, the mechanism remains in place to reverse unpopular or unworkable philosophies about the scope of government – simply elect those who will eliminate such spending, and who will nominate and appoint Justices who will ratify this policy.

    Much of the remainder of his rationale centers on the all-too-frequent opportunities for government to abuse unrestricted taxation and spending scope. He argues that if government is free to tax and spend without limit, the result is boondoggles, pork, and even corruption. And he’s entirely correct.

    So how should such inappropriate or inefficient taxes and allocations be countered? His rather draconian solution of prohibiting them in the first place (or severely limiting them) has been tried, and rejected for reasons considered good and sufficient by the people. The alternative is to preserve a working feedback process, whereby abuses can be identified and corrected, day by day, through a process of trial and error.

    Governmental activity is a complex and evolving process. I find it hard to imagine anything government can possibly do that can please everyone. I struggle to imagine how life in the US might be different if we’d spent the last 8 years spending $2 billion a week funding science (which Sandefur opposes) rather than fighting wars against manufactured enemies, which lack any definition of “victory”, but I have little doubt Sandefur’s personal welfare would have been much improved — and he’d still oppose it!

  3. #3 eric
    February 10, 2009

    I would first like to thank Mr. Sandefur for replying to many of the PT comments on his article.

    Because my post is already too long, I’m only going to respond to his response #s 3 and 6 and then make a final comment about the common defense. Let’s take #3 first. Sandefur writes:

    Doesn’t the Constitution allow the federal government to spend money for the “general welfare”? A few people raised this point. And the answer, according to the Supreme Court, is yes. But I disagree.

    But the U.S. has a system in place for when citizens disagree about points of law. We elect legislative representatives and executive branch leaders. These appoint Supreme Court judges. So the proper Constitutional solution to your disagreement is to ensure your representatives know your opinion, and if they don’t represent those opinions, vote them out. Now, if you disagree with that methodology, you’ll have to tell me what you think the more Constitutional system is. But if you simply disagree with the outcome of the method (i.e. what the Supreme Court has, in fact, ruled), well, get used to the vagaries of democracy because you are no longer making a Constitutional argument.

    #6:

    A commenter said that government funding of, for example, the National Institutes of Health was basically like providing a police force to protect people against being injured. There are two problems with this argument. First, there is no federal police power, and no Constitutional authority for a federal police force (except in federal territories).

    There’s the Federal Air Marshal Service. And the FBI. I suspect many Libertarians would fundamentally oppose the concept of the FBI so lets stick with the former. Air is not exactly a territory. But FAMS is a rational and obvious application of the Constitution: you have a threat that can quickly and with relative impunity cross state lines. The resources and people that are threatened also cross state lines. The threat is of such high magnitude that it could do major damage to a sizeable portion of our government or infrastructure. This traits demand a collective – i.e. Federal – response.

    Well, all of that is true for many communicable diseases too. Quickly crosses State lines? Check. Moves with relative impunity? Check. Impacts multiple States? Check. Huge economic impact? Check. So, if FAMS, why not a Federal program to research and eradicate epidemics?

    ***

    I’ll say one more thing about providing for the common defense, and its closely related to my first point. Mr. Sandefur says that the phrases about general welfare and common defense only refer to specific, granted powers. But the problem is, when it comes to the common defense the Constitution technologically neutral. I will assume for the sake of argument that Mr. Sandefur does not think we are Constitutionally limited to taxing people for the provision of muskets, horses, and canon. But if not, it must be that the Constitution allows military and political leaders to use their best judgement as to what will provide for the common defense, with elections being the main check and balance to stop irrational purchases.

    But that is the system we have here today! And DOD is one of the main Federal funders of research! So, like my first argument, I am at a loss as to on what Mr. Sandefur bases his ‘research is not common defense’ argument. If his argument is that the founders didn’t anticipate the need for R&D – well, the founders didn’t anticipate the need for jets or radar either. If, OTOH, Mr. Sandefur is fine with the process of the voters deciding what is needed for the common defense via the election of representative government, then he seems to be simply complaining about the outcome of the decision process rather than the decision process itself. And this is not a constitutional argument. Its just part of democracy, and his complaint constitutes nothing more a complaint that the majority does not agree with his spending priorities.

  4. #4 jay
    February 10, 2009

    I struggle to imagine how life in the US might be different if we’d spent the last 8 years spending $2 billion a week funding science (which Sandefur opposes) rather than fighting wars against manufactured enemies,

    Alas that was 2B per week that we didn’t have and couldn’t afford. So in truth it shouldn’t have been spent on science either… it shouldn’t have been spent at all.

  5. #5 JT
    February 11, 2009

    “But of course it can. Does the highway system provide me personal economic value? Absolutely. Do I get any personal benefit from paying taxes to educate other peoples’ children, since I have none of my own? Absolutely.”

    This doesn’t answer Sandefur’s point at all. While I benefit from roads and education, the taking of my wealth to pay for those things cannot, definitionally, be efficient.

    “Sandefur may disagree with two+ centuries of Supreme Court interpretations (which meet with near-universal approval), but his disapproval is fortunately obsolete.”

    Well, 70+ years. But again, you do not address his point. Sandefur concedes (multiple times) that his view isn’t followed by the SC, nevertheless, he provides a cogent reading of the “general welfare” language, consistent (and supported by Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments) with the Constitution.

    “So the proper Constitutional solution to your disagreement is to ensure your representatives know your opinion, and if they don’t represent those opinions, vote them out.”

    Well, that is one method. Another that I think you must concede is to change ideas — a method that is best served through writing and debate. If this is his vehicle, it makes little sense to castigate him for proposing ideas not shared by the Court.

  6. #6 Chris
    February 11, 2009

    I read the link you provided on Tim Sandefur.

    While I think he’s wrong, and uses certain things like the Super Conducting Super Collider to justify his point.

    This is what I think HE should do, IF hey TRULY TRULY believes in what he is writing.

    IF he believes the Government shouldn’t fund science, such as the NIH, he should not benefit from ANY sort of medical remedy that was completely or partially funded by the NIH, which is the government.

    So when he needs an operation, or something, he should find out how the treatment was funded. If funded by tax payers money, a man that is true to his word, would refuse treatment even if meant that he die as a result of refusing treatment. If however, he opts for treatment, he really needs to shut up.

  7. #7 eric
    February 11, 2009

    JT said:

    Well, that is one method. Another that I think you must concede is to change ideas — a method that is best served through writing and debate. If this is his vehicle, it makes little sense to castigate him for proposing ideas not shared by the Court.

    I agree with that. I’m not castigating him for making the argument, I’m critiquing its validity. When arguing Constitutionality you’ve got a process argument and a content argument. On content, I think we can all agree that we don’t want to be stuck with a government constitutionally incapable of buying anything invented after ~ca 1800. The only rational interpretation of best defence and common welfare is to allow leadership leeway to spend tax money on new, novel commodities – and a working lab is a commodity as much as an F-16 is. The real constitutional limit that applies to this leeway is not one individual’s definition of the word “defense,” it is judicial review,* legislative approval of funding, and elections.

    So much for the “specific powers” argument. That leaves process. But Mr. Sandefur has never argued that our science policy is wrong as a direct result of our selecting or electing government officials incorrectly.

    So, what other leg does his Constitutional argument stand on?

    [*After Marbury vs. Madison]

  8. #8 eric
    February 11, 2009

    JT said:

    This doesn’t answer Sandefur’s point at all. While I benefit from roads and education, the taking of my wealth to pay for those things cannot, definitionally, be efficient.

    It can’t be 100% efficient; there will be waste. But then again no collective spending – local, state, OR federal – can be 100% efficient, so asking for 100% efficiency from your federal government is a red herring.

    Once you’ve decided some public works project is worth doing, the question that matters is not “is my funding efficient,” its “of the ways available, what’s the most efficient way to collect and disburse funding for this task?”

  9. #9 Mike
    February 11, 2009

    Tim’s response to the first critical comments can be stated efficiently as “basic research that has no immediate market incentive is a waste of money”. That’s ridiculous on the face of it, which is probably why he didn’t just simply say so. Luckily, most people understand the value of scientific research, and how this differs from product development. Outside of trying to educate Tim, there really isn’t any need to debate this.

  10. #10 william e emba
    February 11, 2009

    Debating whether there should be “any” federal funding of research almost has the feel of an artificial, high school debate.

    It’s probably because libertarianism is an artificial, high school level philosophy.

    I posted a somewhat rambling rant against libertarianism in the PT thread. Basically, it’s really not possible to “debate” with libertarians. Their thinking is ideological, in essense, antiscientific. They are not interested in evidence, but in a few select self-righteous principles, which they just know work in all circumstances.

  11. #11 Flint
    February 11, 2009

    JT wrote:

    “But again, you do not address his point. Sandefur concedes (multiple times) that his view isn’t followed by the SC, nevertheless, he provides a cogent reading of the “general welfare” language, consistent (and supported by Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments) with the Constitution.”

    I addressed this, but I’ll try again. There are different ways to interpret the Constitution. If Sandefur feels (or if you feel) that the Supreme Court’s reading is not “cogent”, well, sorry about that.

    So once again, we’re talking about a philosophy of government. If government is seen as a flexible, adaptive feedback process dealing by trial and error with the contingencies of fate, Sandefur’s approach guarantees rapid government ossification and overthrow or circumvention.

    His approach is essentially formalistic, reminding one of how creationists read Genesis – NOT as an allegory or a moral lesson, but as Literal Truth.

    Consider the (much longer) experience of Britain, which has no formal constitution at all, yet has managed such essentials as peacefull succession of power, public feedback, loyal opposition, rule of law, and continuous correction of what turn out to be misguided policies.

    So it’s not rigid adherence to the literal words of any constitution that guarantees liberties, obligations, and redress of grievances. Something more subtle and dynamic must be going on, which apparently escapes Sandefur’s notice.

    Conversely, modern constitutions based largly on the US example have been superimposed worldwide, onto cultures lacking the Western political traditions – and have invariably failed miserably. If the key players do not willingly share genuine power, and do not understand that for a stable government public benefit must be placed ahead of personal power, their government degenerates.

    My experience has been that folks like Sandefur slap an intellectual ideological veneer over an underlying short-sightedness. They’re not really philosophically opposed to taxation, and they happily take advantage of tax-supported programs that benefit them personally. They just don’t want to be taxed to buy things they oppose or can’t use.

  12. #12 harold
    February 12, 2009

    Just thought I’d check back after a few days and see if any support for reducing federal science funding to research had developed.

    Nope. Sorry, Tim.

  13. #13 Pablo Zadunaisky
    February 14, 2009

    I’m simply astonished at the fact that none has made reference to what would happen if government DID cut off SR funding. How much in the public interest would that be in, say 10, 20 years? Faculties would be abandoned, lots of science projects would have to bend to the whims of the same people that pressure the government to pick certain projects over some others.

    For example,I’m pretty sure Creation “science” would get basically the same amount of money as real biology… because there are enough politicians interested in it. My point being, the problems Sandefur raises are real, but they are certainly NOT consequence of the funding coming from the state.