August 9, 2005
Question: Is human progress possible without federal funding?
By Perry Willis
The Downsize DC Foundation exists to show the difference between the innovation fostered in the voluntary sector, and the stagnation and harm done by the coercive government sector. We seek to bring a little balance to a world in which news reporting reduces everything to a question of politics and government, when in reality most human progress is created by neither. Most human progress comes from individuals and voluntary institutions. But are the advances we highlight here really the result of the voluntary sector only? It's a good question, and the good answer is “no.” Much of what we praise here on this website is the result of scientific research, and some of that research is federally funded (though it is usually difficult to tell how much in any specific case). It is no part of our argument that programs funded by coercive taxation never do any good. We make no such absolutest claim. We simply claim that government coercion in general, and Big Government in particular, do vastly more harm than good. Likewise, we do not claim that the voluntary sector causes no harm. We simply claim that voluntary efforts in general, and business and science in particular, are the source of most of what is good (and getting better) in the world. So we assert. But doesn't our focus on scientific advances, and on advances in biology in particular, contradict our claim? Aren't many of these advances, especially in biology, dependent on federal funding? The answer is no. John Tabin makes the following observation: “About two-thirds of American R&D is now funded by the private sector, with taxpayers picking up the tab on the remaining third. As recently as 1970, the figures were reversed: Two-thirds of R&D funding came from Washington. Meanwhile, total R&D funding has in recent decades grown sharply . It should be no surprise that when government support stays relatively flat, the private sector more than picks up the slack.” But why is that? Why do people pay for research, without being coerced to do so by government? You might as well ask why people pay for food or blow-up toys for the backyard swimming pool. People pay for things they want. And people, at all levels, from your neighbor to the wealthiest tycoon or corporation, want scientific breakthroughs to improve their lives. Above all, they want biological breakthroughs to improve their health and lengthen their time on earth. So they pay for these things, through donations or investments, because they expect to reap the benefits, both personally and financially. Looked at this way the obvious question is not, “why would people pay for research,” but rather, “why should we permit government to do so?” Do politicians have some special expertise that enables them to choose what research should be funded, and what should not? Of course not. Politicians are good at getting elected. That is their expertise. And this expertise carries through to the bureaucrats they appoint to make scientific decisions for them. These people are appointed for political reasons first, and the science is an afterthought. An entrepreneur investing in R&D does so with the intent of discovering something useful and profitable. The auto-mechanic who donates to cancer research places his money where he thinks it will do the most to achieve his goal of curing cancer. The incentives are aligned with the goal (even if the auto-mechanic has no more expertise than the Congressman). But in politics the incentives are skewed. Are research decisions made to achieve a research objective, or to satisfy a political agenda? Consider Senator Frist. He was against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research when that seemed politically expedient, but now that President Bush is a lame-duck, Senator Frist changes his position. And given the public opinion polls on this issue it's easy to assume that the change is politically motivated. Which begs a question . . . If so many people favor embryonic stem cell research then why does the federal government need to coerce them at gun point (taxation) to pay for it? The answer, of course, is that no such coercion is required, because people pay for the things they desire. Indeed, it would be very helpful to Downsize DC, and cut taxes accordingly, so people would have more money to invest in the research they value most.
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