But Don’t We Really Need Government Research?

PrintPrint

It’s a valuable public good, research is, isn’t it? Think of where we’d be without it! I mean, it was government research that came up with the Internet, for heaven sake.

That’s a response to the argument I made last week against government funding of scientific research. Moving away from public funding of scientific research would solve the problem of private companies capturing publication spoils from research that taxpayers funded.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency did indeed come up with and popularize the protocol called TCP/IP, which the Internet uses. (Everyone’s use of the protocol really makes the Internet what it is, of course, but nevermind that.)

To take the Internet as proof that the government is a necessary producer of research and innovation, you have to reject the scientific method. Unfortunately, there are rarely controls in public policy. We can’t find out what would have happened if government policy had taken a different course, so we don’t know anything more about who should fund research from the fact that government-funded research has produced good things in the past.

But what would have happened if U.S. public policy had taken a different course? I’ve thought about the impossible-to-answer question of where we would have been without DARPA and other government influences on telecom. What most people don’t consider, I believe, is the restraining influence the government-granted AT&T monopoly had on telecommunications for most of the 20th century. AT&T developed a “Teletypewriter Exchange” system in 1931, for example, but had no need to develop it, there being little or no competitive pressure to do so. (Its patent on attaching devices to phone wires undoubtedly helped as well, preventing anyone using AT&T’s wires for modem service.)

Had there been competition, I suspect that someone would have come up with the idea of packet-switched networks—that’s what the Internet is—before Leonard Kleinrock did in 1962. Kleinrock was a student at MIT—he wasn’t at DARPA, which didn’t get into packet-switching until about 1966. (Then again, MIT was almost certainly awash in government money—specifically military money—so there you go. Maybe we owe all the good things we’ve got to war, but I doubt it.)

My guess—and it’s only that—is that we would have had the Internet some decades earlier if not for government interventions in telecommunications. We probably would have had multiple, competing “Internets,” actually, adopted more slowly than the Internet we got. (In a chapter of Privacy in America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, I explored how government has accelerated the development of computing and communications, overpowering society’s capacity to adjust, with negative consequences for privacy.)

Support for government-funded research requires one to elide opportunity costs, the things foregone when one thing is chosen. As I said before, tradeoffs are ineluctable: Money spent on government research takes away from private research, or from other priorities such as reducing debt. In the absence of taxation to support research, the money would go to the public’s priorities as determined directly by the public in manifold spending and investing decision. Taxation and spending on government research is merely the substitution of centralized, political decision-making for a distributed, direct decision-making system. Its supporters are generally going to be beneficiaries of that system—elites, in short.

Even these beneficiaries of the status quo tend to agree that political decisions about funding for scientific research are warped. The solution to that problem, they’ll say, is fixing the political system—that is, creating a political system that is not so political.

Such a breakthrough is as unlikely as the invention of water that is not wet. Perhaps we can put DARPA on both projects.