Arnold Kling discusses science funding. Constitutional political economy offers a perspective that is too often left out of these discussions, which usually focus on the merits (or lack thereof) of pure, basic science and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The implicit–and I believe false–assumption is that we can design a set of coercive mechanisms that will generate the precisely correct trade-offs between scientific output and all other possible goals and, therefore, a net increase in social welfare. At the margin, I suspect that Kling and I would agree that the social benefits of additional science funding would be frittered away by rent-seeking. Here’s one data point: 2.96 million Google hits for the phrase [grant-writing workshop]. Obviously, putting it in quotes reduces the number by a factor of ten or so, but 200,000 is still a lot. Interestingly, Google auto-suggested that I include “NIH” in one variation of the search string.
Thus, even if we grant all of the methodological prerequisites necessary to claim that government science funding is necessary or beneficial, it is still far from a clear-cut case. Even when it is playing against a stacked deck, liberty wins. Enthusiasts for intervention set far too low a bar to clear. The possibility of “market failure” as it might emerge from a standard model of perfect competition is not a prima facie case for state intervention. It is (at best) a starting point for further inquiry. Here’s an excellent treatment of this point in the context of the Misesian/Hayekian research agenda and “robust political economy” from Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson.