TCS Daily

Big Government Libertarianism

By John Tabin - August 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Something odd is happening. Support for a non-defense discretionary spending hike is coming from some surprising quarters.

Big-government liberalism is nothing new; the time when liberalism was associated with laissez-faire economics is long past. In recent years, as Republicans have gained a taste for drunken-sailor spending habits, we've had to contend with big-government conservatism. But now comes the strangest beast of them all: big-government libertarianism.

Consider the reaction when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist broke with President Bush on federal funding for stem-cell research. Many libertarians (myself included) part ways with social conservatives on bioethical issues. But that doesn't change the fact that Frist changed his position in favor of more spending. "I'm with Frist,"
wrote libertarian blogger (and TCS columnist) Glenn Reynolds. Bill Quick of DailyPundit, described as a "cranky libertarian" on his homepage, titled his response to Frist's announcement "Oh, Good"; Quick has previously called on Congress to override a Bush veto of the stem-cell funding bill. Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey called for more stem-cell funding on TCS in May.

What's going on? One attitude driving this rush to the federal trough is the one best-expressed by
one of Quick's commenters:

I am generally [against] government funding of any kind of project that can be done by the private sector. But, if tax dollars are going to be spent then I would rather them be spent on something like this than income redistribution programs to support corporate and social welfare.

But the assumption that "tax dollars are going to be spent" is wrong. The federal budget is in deficit. The choice is not between using tax-dollars to fund research and using the same tax dollars to fund something else. Rather, the choice is between using debt to fund research and not accruing that debt at all. What's wrong with the latter choice?

Last year Elizabeth M. Whelan and Henry I. Miller offered this response in a
TCS column:

Some on the right of the political spectrum argue that the private sector, not the federal government, should fund expanded [embryonic stem cell] research... But the reality is that, for decades in the United States, fundamental, pre-commercial scientific research of this sort has been dominated by funding from the National Institutes of Health; and if the United States is going to compete in the worldwide race to find stem cell-based cures
NIH funding will likely be necessary.


It's true enough that NIH has long loomed large in funding this sort of research. But must it be so? Consider the larger research and development picture. 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. Is there any reason to think that research on embryos should be different?

Ultimately, government-funded science rests on the premise that bureaucrats sorting through grant applications are better at spotting worthy lines of inquiry than are the aggregate of investors risking their own money on the promise of return. Libertarians, at least, ought to reject that premise.

John Tabin is regular online contributor to The American Spectator.


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