It is tempting to imagine that a cause is so important to Mankind, so essential, that only a total idiot could object to coercing one’s fellows into paying for said cause. And when it comes to science funding, even the most seemingly rational people fall prey to the notion that only wicked, selfish people, or religious nutters, could object to this funding. Take a recent article by Steven Mirsky, who writes for Scientific American:
“You’re not supposed to kick a guy when he’s down. Of course, in reality, when he’s down is the perfect time to kick him. He’s closer to your feet, for one thing. But the particular kicking I have in mind should be thought of as tough love. These kicks at the freshly defeated McCain-Palin ticket, as I write in early November, are an attempt to knock some sense back into the group of my fellow Americans who seem determined to ignore or even denigrate valuable scientific research because it’s something outside the realm of Joe the Plumber’s daily activities.”
Ah yes, Joe the Plumber, the man who achieved prominence by asking The Community Organiser about the latter’s plans to seize wealth from productive folk and “spread it around”. What Mr Mirsky goes on to do is mock the comments of the McCain/Palin team who had mocked examples of high tax funding of various projects they think were silly or wasteful. Mr Mirsky gets very shirty about this, regarding the projects as obviously beneficial, and only an old fart like McCain and his crazy VP running mate could disagree.
The rest of the article lays out examples of how certain projects that Mr Mirsky thinks are useful were mocked by the GOP, and by extension, other know-nothings more concerned about protecting their wallets. But Mr Mirsky misses a rather large point. Which is that even if a science project is valuable, the question of value is meaningless unless one asks: of value to whom and in the eyes of whom? What Mr Mirsky want to do is to sustitute his judgement of what is right to spend money on for that of others spending their own money. No doubt he fears that without tax funding, financial support for science will dry up – a very dubious assumption, to put it mildly.
Timothy Sandefur – who is on a roll at the moment – has a collection of essays taking on the argument that science funding has to be, or should be, done at the expense of taxpayers. I urge regulars here who are interested to read all of Tim’s pieces. They are the most comprehensive demolition job on such arguments that I have read for some time.
The trouble with people who do not think much in terms of principles, but who just take a sort of techno-managerialist view of public affairs, is that they cannot see why the great unwashed should object to paying for biotech research, or space flight, etc. And as I mentioned the other day, with the world of the arts, it is the same. It is just assumed by some folk that because a painting by Titian or Andy Warhol is marvellous, that the taxpayer should consider his duty to pay for it. The danger in such cases is when the expenditures are relatively small compared to the total size of public spending: the temptation is to shrug one’s shoulders and wonder why making a fuss is necessary. Well, if we cannot take an axe to the supposedly more “benign” aspects of public spending, it will never be possible to make the broader philosophical case for reducing the state significantly.
As a side observation, the sneering, more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone of Mr Mirsky puts me in mind of Thomas Sowell’s recent superb attack on that sort of mindset, in his book, The Vision of The Anointed.