Science Funding and Society: Final Thoughts

What Government - at least as we know it - Is.

Timothy Sandefur and I have been debating the proper role of government in funding scientific research for a couple of weeks now. Over the course of the debate, it's become clear to me that he and I do not have a common understanding about what our government actually is, or what the right relationship between the government and the citizens actually is.

Over the years, we humans have tried out more forms of government than you can shake a stick at. In the context of this particular debate, though, whenever we've used the term "government", we've been talking about something that's at least similar to what we've got in the United States right now. Objectively speaking, it's a system of government where the various bureaucracies are directly overseen by political appointees, as well as by the elected legislative branch and elected executive. I would hope that Mr. Sandefur and I would agree about that much (even if we do not agree about the effectiveness of the oversight).

We don't agree on just what the relationship between this government and the citizens actually is.

Reading through Sandefur's posts, it appears that he thinks of the government as being almost an entity in its own right. He appears to view the government as something that has its own interests in any particular set of circumstances, and will act according to those interests, rather than responding to the interests of the citizenry. The government will seek to gain and retain power, and the government's urges to do this sort of thing can be manipulated by other people for their personal gain.

I think that we are the government. It's our job to do what we can to ensure that the government looks out for the interests of us, the citizens. When the government fails to look out for our interests - as it so often does - raising arguments about the government acting in its own interests is a cop-out. Our government was created to look out for the interests of the citizens. When the government fails to do this, the failure is ours, and the responsibility to fix it is ours.

It might not be the best possible system of government, but it's the one we chose. And it works reasonably well.

Government as a Package Deal:

Taxes are the price we pay for the government that we have. If you want to argue that it's immoral to take taxes from someone for a purpose that they do not approve of, then all taxes - and by extension all government functions - are to some extent immoral. A monk will disapprove of actions that will result in an increase in wealth, but the same monk might very well also be opposed to spending on defense. If it's immoral to force the monk to pay taxes that will be used to try and bring about a general increase in wealth, it also must be immoral to force the monk to pay for defense projects. In both cases, the monk is being forced to pay for something that he does not want.

Of course, it's important to note that spending money on defense is clearly allowed under at least three separate clauses of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. But that just makes it legal, and as we all know, legal is not necessarily the same as moral. It's also worth noting that despite Mr. Sandefur's vocal objections, the constitutionality of funding for the sciences is generally well accepted. Sandefur may believe that science funding is unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court differs - and has for decades.

Since we've been going with metaphors here, I think another one might be called for here.

I enjoy photography. Among other things, I enjoy taking pictures of astronomical objects - stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae, that sort of thing. The digital SLR camera I bought is great for a number of different kinds of photography, but one of its features renders it less than ideal for astronomy: it's got an infrared-blocking filter in front of the imager that overlaps into the red part of the spectrum enough that pictures of nebulae aren't going to be as good as they can be. Even though this camera has a feature that is undesirable to me, I still bought it. Despite the undesirable feature, the camera as a whole was a better choice for me than any of the alternatives, and there was no way to get the camera without the undesirable feature.

A government is going to have a very, very hard time remaining remotely functional if it only spends taxpayer money on things that every taxpayer can agree on. A system like that might yield police and fire departments, but not much else - and even there I suspect that there would be quite a few places with hand-pumped fire apparatus and police officers with 10 square mile foot beats. If you doubt me, I'd suggest attending any town council meeting anywhere when new emergency service equipment requests are being discussed.

Behaviors - Rent-Seeking and Otherwise:

After further review, I have to concede one point: I clearly was using rent-seeking in a broader sense than seems to be generally accepted. I pulled the definition off Wikipedia (which was my first mistake), and then may have misinterpreted even that. If rent-seeking is defined as attempting to gain an economic benefit by persuading the government to give them some sort of advantage - and that does seem to be a widely accepted definition - then rent-seeking is not a problem that can occur without government involvement.

At the same time, it strikes me as a bit of a strange concept. Essentially, it seems to me that it requires us to believe that there is some sort of moral difference between (for example) a major agricultural firm telling their current hometown that unless they get a big property tax break, they're going to have to pack up and move and a pharmaceutical firm launching a major ad campaign to convince Americans that their nail fungus is a medical problem that they desperately need to treat.

Apparently, convincing people that they need something that they really don't is a more honorable method of getting money than convincing a local government that not destroying the local economy is worth a tax break. Personally, I don't see it.

In any case, my basic point is this: people are always ready to look for an unfair advantage. Setting up a system of safety regulations and approvals presents one set of opportunities for rent-seeking, but depending on tort law to handle problems presents another set of possibilities for gaming the system. If you remove the government from the situation completely, you'll still have people trying to find - and finding - ways to create some sort of advantage that will let you get more money without having to actually provide any sort of new or improved good or service.

One of the prime examples of this was actually raised by Sandefur: Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Sandefur claims that this was an example of Microsoft attempting to move things toward standardization and getting slapped down for their trouble, but that's a somewhat strained interpretation of events. Microsoft bundled its browser in with its operating system, giving it away for free with virtually every non-Apple desktop computer sold. This had the effect of essentially forcing everyone who bought a Windows-based computer to pay for the development and marketing of Internet Explorer - regardless of what the user would have spent that money on if offered a choice.

Microsoft invested in creating an economic disincentive for consumers who might want a different browser, while simultaneously making it less logistically convenient for them to use an alternative. They did this by tacking their browser on to their massively successful operating system as a free bonus. But, of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Microsoft did not develop Internet Explorer for free. They did not maintain it for free. They did not support it for free. They did not do further development or updates for free. All of these things took money, and this money presumably was one of the factors Microsoft considered when they set the price for their operating system.

Anyone who used Windows had to buy Internet Explorer, even if they would have preferred to apply that part of the software cost toward purchasing Netscape instead. They turned their massive operating system market share into an unfair advantage in internet browser share.

My point here is not that government's hands are clean. They're not. It's simply that attempting to gain an unfair advantage instead of developing a better product is not something that's going to disappear if the government involvement goes away. This is a basic (and baser) human instinct that's going to be a problem regardless. That being the case, I think that the best solution is not to deal with these problems by eliminating the government involvement, if for no other reason than that it's not going to work. A better solution is to remain aware of the potential problem, and take steps to minimize that risk.

In Torts We Do Not Trust:

Sandefur responded to my concerns about ensuring the public safety in the face of industrial actions by pointing to the existence of tort law as an incentive. That would be great, I suppose, but only if it worked. As quite a few peanut consumers can tell you, it doesn't. The details - and civil suits - aren't all in yet, but a considerable amount of evidence has surfaced that suggests that the owners and operators didn't care if their product was contaminated, as long as they got paid for it. Their company is now in bankruptcy. Most of the people they harmed will not be able to collect a red cent from them to compensate them for the harm they suffered.

But that's really beside the point.

The thing about torts as a method for preventing businesses from hurting their customers is that it only works if the business is actually worried about that particular consequence. The problem is that some people - including some business owners - are really, really good at ignoring future consequences in the face of immediate gain. It may well be that any truly rational business owner will worry about torts, but not every owner is going to be truly rational, and bad food products can kill. The peanuts are, again, a case in point. The owners and operators of the plant do not appear to have been concerned by the possibility of future lawsuits. They do not even seem to have been deterred by the possibility that they were committing criminal acts. Tort law did not prevent the incidents, and I find it difficult to see how it could have.

Regulation and inspection - if effectively carried out - are a solution to this problem that can keep caskets empty. Tort law is a threat of a possible, but not definite, consequence if they're filled. I take more comfort from knowing that there's some non-zero chance that the health department will inspect the restaurant I'm eating at before I get there than I do from knowing that my children might be able to recover damages from the owner if I die.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Government funding can be a corruptive influence on science. So can private foundation funding, or industry funding. Government can attempt to use and misuse science to promote various policies. So can industry.

Preventing this is everyone's job, just as it's everyone's job to stay politically informed and aware. So far, I think the scientific community has done a reasonably good job when it comes to vocally objecting to instances where misuse or misrepresentation of scientific findings is happening.

That doesn't mean that it's perfect, but it's all of our job to try to make sure that we take this issue as seriously as possible, and do the best we can. This will remain true no matter where the funding comes from - misuse and distortion are problems that come from the need for money, not the source.

We, the Government:

Let me say this as simply and plainly as possible: I do not believe that adults are children who need a government to make decisions for them, and I do not believe that advocating for government spending in particular areas is equivalent to making that argument.

If Mr. Sandefur does not believe that a particular government action is in his best interest, I am not going to argue. Not only is he better equipped to make that determination, as he points out, he's the only one who is at all equipped to decide that. If he wants to object to government decisions that he feels are not in his best interest, and if he wants to convince you, me, or anyone else that he's right, I not only say, "more power to him," I mean it - without reservation, and without sarcasm.

That's not only his right as a member of our society, it's his responsibility. If he advocates successfully for his position while I remain silent, it would not be fair for me to blame him for the outcome.

There is no public action that is going to be in everyone's best interest. The most that we can hope for is that government will act in the best interests of as much of the citizenry as possible. If I am arguing that a proposal Sandefur dislikes is really in the public interest, that's not the same as me saying that he's wrong about his own interests. I'm arguing that I think that relatively few will share his perspective.

I'm acutely aware, as I write this, of the potential harm that can be caused by a tyranny of the majority, and I think it's important that we take steps to prevent that - particularly when we're dealing with issues that involve money and tangible gain. It's important, I think, that the government should be responsive to the needs and desires of the majority, but it's at least as important to make sure that there are barriers in place to make it difficult for the majority to trample the minority.

I believe that our structure of government does a reasonably good job of providing this. A handful of states excepted, we do not pass laws through direct democracy. We elect representatives, and hope that they will be courageous enough to stand up to us when they think we're wrong about an issue. (We frequently hope that in vain, but that doesn't mean we should stop hoping.) We also have the Constitution, which provides checks on what we, the majority, can do in our role as part of the government.

Ultimately, I think that government funding for science benefits the country as a whole. We wind up healthier, better educated, with more knowledge about the world we live in, and a stronger foundation to use to continue to develop new innovations and industries. I'm still not sure - even after all Tim's efforts - that we can hope for anything more.

I'd also like to thank Tim Sandefur for his participation in this debate. I suspect that neither of us is entirely happy with the other's responses to the various issues, and I'm dead certain that neither of us has had any radical change in views. But it's still more satisfying to try and work things through in a public forum like this than it is to scream at each other in private.


More like this

I haven't been following along in the debate; after reading Sandefur's first post of the discussion, I thought he was nuts, taking every one of the talking points of not just the moderate liberatarians, but the over-the-top crazy liberatarians. Now I come back and get this distillation of the rest of Sandefur's views: appears that he thinks of the government as being almost an entity in its own right. He appears to view the government as something that has its own interests in any particular set of circumstances, and will act according to those interests, rather than responding to the interests of the citizenry.

You're kidding, right? It sounds as if he forgets that as soon as people stop believing in the rules of government, it stops existing. Government is nothing more than the people that form it, who advocate different positions based upon their interests, not the government's.

When I first saw these posts, I was hoping for a very different sort of discussion. Oh well. So were you. One part of the discussion I'd like to see is consideration of just how much societal funding of science there should be. 0 is logically permissible, but history suggests it's a foolish figure. Still, there's a wide range historically. And perhaps nobody has yet invested heavily enough. etc.

The 'government as an entity in its own right' is a view that I actually agree with to some degree. It's also the extent of agreement that collapses the point. The thing is, whether it's my running club, my work group, the people in my neighborhood, ... groups of people do seem to take some degree of 'us-ness', and pursue the interests of that group of 'us'. There are some in-group arguments, to be sure. Some of the running club are keen on marathons, some like roads, some trails, and a few of us (I like all three) like track. In the details, we'll argue. But we've got broad agreement that running is a good thing and present a united front on that point.

Move us people out of those other groups and in to our workplace, government or not, and human nature continues to assert itself. But that's also where the fear of government line fails. The government is large. Large means there are lots of different parts, and the people in those different parts will have different priorities. It's only government as monolith that have a uniform goal.

And against even that possibility, we have set a legislative branch that has, for its own purposes, reasons to want the executive branch's staffing to be smaller rather than larger.

Mike, you are a very kind and patient man.

Here are some brief quotes - not mined, I'm sure he'll agree - from his writings, and my responses.

Forcing people to subsidize science is immoral

It couldn't be more irrelevant whether Sandefur considers it immoral. Morality is a personal and subjective thing. Anyone can claim to find anything "immoral".

Furthermore, look at the language here. "Forcing" people to subsidize science. But people are not "forced" to subsidize science. The decision to use tax revenue to subsidize science is a democratic one, and the people can vote to stop doing it any time.

Sandefur has the same access to the voting booth as anyone else, and can campaign against science funding to his heart's content, but that isn't good enough for him.

It is wrong to take away a personâs earnings for your own benefit

Again, a masterful use of biased, propaganda style language.

It is not "wrong" for our society, or any society, to have a tax policy. It is not "wrong" for our democratic society to choose to use tax revenue to fund scientific research. It is obscene to characterize research scientists as "taking away Timothy Sandefur's money for their own benefit".

As has been pointed out on so many occasions, to no avail as far as Sandefur's reasoning is concerned, his earnings are dependent on the presence of an organized society, which is itself dependent on some level of social cooperation. Some people must "take away his money for their own benefit", i.e. make use of his tax revenues to perform necessary or beneficial jobs, or he won't have any earnings. Except perhaps a squirrel carcass on the end of a stick, being roasted over a primitive fire, if he can even hold onto that.

Using the government to enrich yourself at someone elseâs expense is no less a robbery just because it is done under the forms of law.

Once again, the use of inflammatory, exaggerated, propaganda style language correctly alerts us to the low credibility of the writer.

Here we can see that this statement, language style aside, is entirely false. "Robbery" is illegal, making legal use of tax revenues is not illegal, and is not robbery.

Economic incentives ensure that government subsidies to science are economically wasteful

A meaningless right wing sound bite. In fact, the language is so overgeneralized as to ensure that the statement is by definition false. All government subsidies to science are always wasteful? Only the most inflexible ideologue's mind would advance such an argument.

Allowing government to wrap itself in scientific credentials gives it a dangerous and unwarranted claim to legitimacy

Actually, the government of the United States is legitimate, and should rely on accurate scientific opinion in formulating policy whenever relevant.

Private decision makers are better at making choices about using resources than the government

Again, a right wing soundbite, the very overgeneralized nature of which makes it false by definition.

I actually partly agree with one thing he said...

In fact, ârent seekingâ occurs when private groupsâlargely private industriesâinvest time and money in obtaining differential advantages from the government.

Frankly, in addition to all of the flaws I noted above, I was also irritated by Sandefur's semantic game playing with definitions. For example, Mike would use the term "the public good" in the common manner - "the good of the public" - and Sandefur would evade Mike's point by dredging up a narrow, technical definition of "a public good" from economics. And so on.

However, I do agree that this is a correct use of the term "rent-seeking", that such behavior is common, and that it should be discouraged. It is common knowledge that the Bush administration greatly encouraged this type of behavior, especially by military contractors.

It is ludicrous to argue that this justifies reducing funding for research to zero, of course. That would be about the most extreme example of "throwing the baby out with the bath water" that I can imagine.

Incidentally, despite my scientific education and literacy, I do not now receive, and have never received, public research grant money. Just in case anyone was wondering.