Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:
Gary Becker’s and James Heckman’s call for more government funding of social-science research is odd, coming as it does from two economists at the University of Chicago (a private educational and research institution, by the way, whose existence is difficult to explain in light of the textbook theory that the authors deploy to make their case for government funding of basic research) (“Why the Dismal Science Deserves Federal Funding,” Aug. 10).
Especially odd is some of the research that Messrs. Becker and Heckman list as useful “public goods” that can be supplied only by government: “Programs to educate Americans about the benefits of healthy behaviors such as compliance with medical protocols, reduced smoking, regular physical exercise and healthy eating habits are underdeveloped and under-researched.” Research on these programs might or might not be “underdeveloped.” (By what metric is such a thing measured?) But the underlying, relevant phenomena are emphatically all private goods. Even with increasingly socialized health care, the bulk of the benefits and of the costs of not getting regular dental check-ups, of smoking, of being a couch potato, or of eating poorly all fall squarely on each individual who engages in those behaviors.
Research by pricey professors into tactics that government can use to change the private preferences of private citizens is a most dubious sort of “public good.” Such research, like all research, should be paid for only with private funds.
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030
Please, no jokes about how I work at a government university: in my ideal world there would be no such thing. And since my return to GMU Econ in August 2001, I’ve spent a huge amount of time successfully raising private funds to help support the work of our faculty and the studies of our students. (BTW, only a tiny fraction – certainly less than ten percent, and likely less than five percent – of those funds are from the Koch Foundation, and none are from any of the Koch brothers directly. But my colleagues, students, and I are genuinely grateful for every private contribution we receive, regardless of source.)
UPDATE: Jeff Kattar sends, by e-mail, the following fine insight:
I recommend that anyone who believes that, “Programs to educate Americans about the benefits of healthy behaviors such as compliance with medical protocols, reduced smoking, regular physical exercise and healthy eating habits are underdeveloped and under-researched.” should simply apply for life insurance and ask the actuaries why they are paying so much compared to their fit and trim neighbor who never smoked and follows an exercise regimen.
2nd UPDATE: Tyler Cowen weighs in with his usual amount of unusually bountiful wisdom (although I don’t share Tyler’s stated sympathy for government funding for science).