In a thread on the Facebook group “Libertarians at the UW” someone asked “What is the perspective of libertarians concerning the funding of sciences by the government?”

This question started me thinking about the two different basic approaches to libertarianism that I see. The first is the moral approach, people who take this approach tend to call for less government on moral grounds, usually because they claim the government violates a set of natural rights in many ways. Ayn Rand is probably the most famous libertarian with this approach. The second approach is the practical approach. These libertarians usually advocate less government because of the difficulties they see inherent in central planning and the insights from public choice theory about government failure. Many of the libertarian leaning economist bloggers fall into this category. Moral approach libertarians will often argue that respect for natural rights inevitably leads to the most efficient outcomes, but this is dubious at best. As a general rule, I think those who take the economic approach tend to be less radical than those who take the moral approach. Those who take the economic approach often make exceptions for “public goods” and other “market failures”, but it is much more difficult for those who take the moral approach to make exceptions.

This is not to say people don’t switch or combine approaches; on the contrary, I think the most libertarians have an approach that falls somewhere between those two extremes. I think of Hayek as someone who combined both approaches, because he talked about when coercion is justifiable and when it isn’t, and his exceptions to the moral rule of non-coercion were practically based. I myself have mostly switched from a moral approach to a practical approach. I used to argue mainly from a natural rights perspective, but as I have become less convinced of the ethical justification for ‘natural rights’, I have switched to arguing from an economic perspective, even though I remain interested in what, if any, fundamental rights can be ethically justified. I suspect that similar transitions from a moral approach to libertarianism to a practical/economic approach to libertarianism are relatively common. I think one of the reasons Ayn Rand, who mostly takes a moral approach, is the way many libertarians become libertarian is because moral libertarianism is an easier position to understand.

To answer the question, I think moral-approach libertarians will tend to reject or at least be quite skeptical of government funded science because they see the taxation required to fund it as coercive, while practical-approach libertarians will tend to view science, especially ‘fundamental’ research like physics and chemistry, as a public good and therefore make an exception for it.

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