Science: Why The Market Can’t Handle (all of) It

The less-intelligent sort of libertarians* seem to view the market the way that children view their mother’s credit card: as far as they are concerned, it is basically a “get-out-paying-for-things-free” card for governments. Thus a government need never spend money on anything (and therefore need never tax its citizens), because it can just sit back, maybe draft a law every now and again, and the ineffable internal dynamics of the Free Market will inevitably handle everything. This ‘logic’ is particularly inane in the case of cutbacks to social programs–the overwhelming majority of which were established explicitly because the free market couldn’t and indeed didn’t handle-it.

Now don’t get me wrong: I will be the first to admit that the Free Market is an extraordinarily powerful and (if seen in an appropriate light) beautiful thing. But what it’s not is fucking magic; and it’s about damn time that everyone realized that.

As you might imagine, Harper’s recent cuts to scientific funding have provoked the usual inane bafflegab out of the libertarians**. To quote a few trolls from the protest group’s facebook page:

  • “so nothing can happen without the state?”
  • “not the governments responsibility to fund them”
  • “If only people were rising against government because government got too big and too powerful. Instead, people seem to be rising against cuts by government, and everyone seems to want a piece of the pie. When you give government your trust to regulate your life, then you get government like Harper’s, who takes that role seriously. It forces you to eat, watch, hear, and read only what they think is in your best interest. Any other big government leader like the NDP or Liberals would do the same. It’s time for people to wake up and protest against statism, big government and big spending if they want their freedom back.”
  • “Too many federal workers….including scientists…Mulcair would have you believe their is a money tree growing at 24 Sussex to pay for everything…..let the government pay for everything….do not be responsible as an adult……let the government wipe your a$$ from birth to death……wonderful fiction……” [NB: Yes, the egregious abuse of ellipses is in the original]

This is probably an exercise in futility, but let me take a stab at clearing a few things up for these unintelligent creatures:

Yes: of course the market can play a role in supporting scientific research. Massive corporations would not have multi-billion dollar ‘Research and Development’ divisions if they didn’t produce results. In fact, it is for precisely this reason that I think that the federal government shouldn’t be spending money on research projects with obvious commercials spinoffs because I fully trust the private sector to do this itself.

However, the market can not do all of the work when it comes to science, and the reasons for this are several. First of all, corporations, when you get right down to it, are machines for making money. If there is a field with obvious commercial applications, then of course they can be depended upon to research it. However, in most cases, this is not how science works: for example, the technological spinoffs of understanding quantum mechanics have been enormous…but not one of them would have been obvious to any of the scientists actually doing the original research a hundred years ago. By definition, you cannot know what lines of research are going to be productive until you research them! The same thing can be said of modern physics: to give a topical example, it’s entirely possible that in the future, knowledge of the Higgs boson will play an enormous role in Human technological development: however, such applications are by no means obvious today, and unfortunately, universities don’t have the money to undertake purely academic research projects in modern physics without governmental support. The private sector, meanwhile, would have considered the whole endeavour to be an enormous money pit, with little to no chance of a return on their investments; it therefore simply would not have been done.

Secondly, it presupposes that all of the benefits accrued from scientific research can be monetarized. In practice, there are certain intangible benefits to society upon which it is extraordinarily difficult to even place a dollar value, let alone profit. To cite an example from my own experience: epidemiology. The benefits to society of being able to predict the spread of a disease and therefore prevent an epidemic or pandemic are almost incalculable…but they do not lend themselves readily to commercialization. Unlike developing a vaccine after an epidemic has already taken place, which is less effective but can at least be sold.

Thirdly, it presupposes that material benefit is the only reason for undertaking scientific research. Call me romantic, but I tend to think that learning new things for the sake of learning new things is a worthwhile and enriching endeavour.

Fourthly, corporations are likely to regard any scientific discoveries that their labs do make as being trade secrets (or at least things to be placed behing intellectual property walls), whereas science is dependent upon the free flow of information.

Finally, not to put too fine of a point on it, but the much-celebrated private sector is very frequently violently opposed to the progress of science. Whether it be pharmaceutical corporations trying to bury negative data on their new wonderdrugs, oil companies spreading blatant lies about climatology or the tobacco industry’s decades long-push to deny the link between smoking and cancer, trusting corporations (exclusively) to safeguard the progress is alot like paying a wolf to guard your henhouse.

In summary and in conclusion, in order to buy into libertarian claims about science and the free market, you would have to fundamentally misunderstand both science and economics.

______________________________________________

*And yes, I know that they’re not all like this

*Who oddly also seem to be silent about the Free Speech issues attendant in the government banning scientists from talking about their own research, although this seems like they kind of thing that they should care about.

About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
This entry was posted in Academics, Politics, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Science: Why The Market Can’t Handle (all of) It

  1. Lindsay says:

    So weird. I wonder how many of them are in science themselves, because I can’t imagine most scientists, or even science students, reacting to the idea that all research ought to be funded by industry with anything but a shudder.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Oh, and “bafflegab” is a wonderful word. Did you make it up?

  3. 2012 and all that says:

    In my experience, the only response you will ever get to this:

    Finally, not to put too fine of a point on it, but the much-celebrated private sector is very frequently violently opposed to the progress of science. Whether it be pharmaceutical corporations trying to bury negative data on their new wonderdrugs, oil companies spreading blatant lies about climatology or the tobacco industry’s decades long-push to deny the link between smoking and cancer, trusting corporations (exclusively) to safeguard the progress is alot like paying a wolf to guard your henhouse.

    Is something along the lines of climate science being a global liberal conspiracy and on the other issues big businesses should do whatever they can to protect their profits.

    Absolutely beggars belief doesn’t it?

  4. Pingback: This Is What Happens When You Entrust Your Country To An Idiot. | voxcorvegis

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