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Published May 16, 2012 in Short Answers by Mary Ruwart
QUESTION: I am greatly in agreement with libertarianism principles, but as a college student preparing for a career in the hard sciences, I can't help but question one issue: scientific research. How would a libertarian society address such issues as scientific research of a purely academic nature at a scale that cannot necessarily be carried out at a university level? Without government-funded laboratories, how do we fuel new research of such a nature that would be inherently unprofitable to any private enterprise?
ANSWER: In his 1996 book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, Terence Kealey presents evidence that only 10% of new technology comes from academic (government-funded) research. He also finds that increasing funds for government research tends to depress privately-funded efforts, resulting in a net loss of new scientific progress.
In other words, government funding of research, like most forms of aggression, backfires.
Kealey writes: If this book has a message, it is this: relax. Economic, technical and scientific growth are free lunches. Under laissez faire they just emerge, like grass after the rain, through the efforts of individual entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Once the State has initiated the rule of law and sensible commercial legislation, the goodies will flow -- and laissez faire is morally superior to dirigisme [strong government control of society] as it maximises the freedoms and responsibilities of the individual.”
My own experience in 25-plus years of both industrial and academic research supports Kealey’s findings.
Kealey’s book is out of print, but he makes the same point in an excellent short commentary published by the Cato Institute entitled “End Government Science Funding.”
That article begins: “The big myth about scientific research is that government must fund it. The argument is that private companies will not fund science, especially pure science, for fear that their competitors will ‘capture’ the fruits of that investment. Yet, in practice, companies fund pure science very generously, and government funding displaces private research money.”
Kealey explores that point, and concludes: “Scientists may love government money, and politicians may love the power its expenditure confers upon them, but society is impoverished by the transaction.”
If a libertarian society didn't have a Brookhaven National Laboratory or a Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider, it would most likely have something that was more highly valued by society at that point in time. Who knows, you might even like it better!