Political Science

By Richman, Sheldon | Ideas on Liberty, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Political Science


Richman, Sheldon, Ideas on Liberty


Richard Cobden, nineteenth-century Britain's tireless advocate of peace and free trade, pointed out that violence-the essence of the state-changes the very nature of a thing. Just as forced religion isn't really religion, he said, so forced trade isn't really trade. That was his answer to the "free-trade imperialists" of his time.

He could have added a third example: science. At its best, science is the pursuit of the truth about physical reality. Its practitioners should be fearless and relentless seekers of the facts. If they are not, what's the point?

But science dominated by government is something different: a propaganda tool not to be trusted. Too many people naively assume that if science in the abstract is objective, then government-sponsored science must be the same. Curiously, that principle is not extended to business-sponsored science. A researcher whose work is funded by a corporation is irredeemably tainted as a stooge. Not so the scientist on a government grant. A corporation may surely have an agenda, but is that not also true for the current crop of politicians and bureaucrats?

Given a report on global warming, is it enough to know that the report was funded by a coal company or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? If catastrophic global warming is not occurring, a coal company would surely be interested in making that known-and EPA bureaucrats bent on messianic regulation might want to keep it quiet. As the Public Choice school reminds us, people are people, whether they work in the private (overt-profit) sector or the "public" (covert-profit) sector.

We need not believe that bureaucrats will self-consciously lie about scientific research-although if businessmen can lie, why not bureaucrats? It may be instead that they let their anti-industrial bias shade their interpretation of facts, sacrificing objectivity for advancement of an agenda.

Everyone who sponsors and does scientific research is human, so the risk of bias is ever present. That is precisely why it should be off-limits to government. Free competition in the scientific marketplace is the best way to neutralize subjectivity, expose error, and approach the truth. When government impedes that competition quality suffers. Yet that is exactly what government does today when it centralizes the research grant-making process. It establishes orthodoxy, complete with protectionist white-coated high priests. Dissenters are then stigmatized as "out of the mainstream" and find little or no money for their work. This happens routinely in medicine, nutrition, environmental science, and other areas.

If we just want the facts, let's separate lab and state.

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