Free science from the state

Richard Lorenc Cofounder, Liberty Markets LLC
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As the prospects for a partial shutdown of the federal government loomed last Friday, the popular blog Gizmodo published an ominous article. Catering to its audience of tech geeks and rocket scientists, the article explained “how the government shutdown would screw the top ten science operations vital for the country.”

The post by Jesus Diaz lists ten government or government-sponsored scientific programs that would have their operations pared back in the event that Congress and the president couldn’t agree to yet another continuing budget resolution.

Let’s examine how a partial government shutdown would have affected these departments and consider how scientific inquiry would actually be enhanced by freeing it from the burden of relying on a single source of funding: the federal government.

Centers for Disease Control: Truly essential operations like controlling diseases would continue. Non-essential operations like buying $8 million worth of equipment and losing it would be put on hold.

United States Department of Agriculture: Inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs would continue, although payouts of subsidies to farmers to grow too much of their crop would probably be delayed. In 2010, agricultural subsidies totaled around $15 billion. Those subsidies are the main reason why corn is in much of what we eat.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: As Gizmodo noted, a partial shutdown “would affect all the facilities except those that are essential for the protection of lives and property in the United States.” (Isn’t this the most essential and proper purpose of government?)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration: The International Space Station would not fall out of the sky, and preparations would continue for the launch of the space shuttle once the gears of government began turning slowly once again. NASA’s Muslim outreach programs would presumably cease temporarily.

Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories: Development of new ways to kill people would continue unimpeded.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Tasks related to maintaining the country’s 5,113-warhead nuclear arsenal would continue.

National Ignition Facility: Scientists working to create an endless energy source would have some time to replenish their own energy reserves.

Fermilab proton-antiproton collider: Countless new universes would not be formed . . . until they were.

Federal Transportation Safety: Law enforcement would continue to enforce the regulations on all 75,000+ pages of the Federal Register.

U.S. Military: Overseas military operations would continue, including those not authorized by Congress.

Glibness aside, there is some amazing research happening at many of these places. I’m as excited about the possibilities for the perpetual motion machine as anyone.

The point is not so much that government wastes a whole lot of money — which it does — so much as it is the single largest source of funding for each of these programs (and many more).

In the same way that you would choose to diversify your retirement investments so that a bad day at Apple doesn’t cancel your retirement completely, visionaries who want to see new innovations and discoveries should not want these programs to be dependent solely on the beneficence of 535 warring legislators and one president.

There’s also the big problem of the nature of government spending generally. Everyone’s heard the stories of the $100 toilet seat at the Pentagon or the fortune poured into developing a pen that works in zero-G (where a pencil would have worked just fine).

Costs are inflated in government because normal market signals aren’t allowed to function.

How do you determine whether something you buy is worth the cost? There are many ways, but all are subjective. You might buy a television expecting to get several years of entertainment. Or you might buy a house because you expect to get years of enjoyment that you value higher than the price you paid.

Every time you buy something, you take a risk and express your expectation that that risk will pay off. After all, you never want to have your costs exceed your income. That leads to deficit spending.

Businesses calculate value a bit differently but along the same lines. Since their purpose is to sell things to others, they need to know whether their offerings are of value. Otherwise, why be in the business at all?

The only way to really tell whether a business produces value for others is if the customer is willing to pay more for a good or service than what it cost to produce it. This is called a profit, and, like F.A. Hayek said, “profit is a signal that we are serving well people whom we do not know.”

Government does not sell products to willing customers. Rather, it taxes. Because you’re forced to pay taxes, there’s no way to see whether government action is truly valuable.

Thus, money is wasted not only when equipment is lost or taxpayers send money to Western cowboy poetry festivals, but every single time government spends a dollar.

The Soviets may have gotten a man into space 50 years ago today and built a whole lot of potent weapons, but they did it at the cost of their people’s lives and livelihoods.

Imagine how much valuable scientific inquiry would occur if the enterprise were freed entirely from the fickle ambitions of politicians and directed instead by the needs, wishes, and desires of millions of individuals who want to make daily decisions to improve their lives.

The potential for a partial shutdown of the federal government gives us a wonderful opportunity to examine how much about the future we entrust to the actions of a very few in a city on the Potomac.

If we truly desire advancement in space exploration, energy, and medicine, we should free science from the state.

Richard Lorenc is cofounder of Liberty Markets LLC, a Chicago-based firm that connects donors with entrepreneurial, free market nonprofits, and is chairman of the Chicago chapter of America’s Future Foundation.