In his classic bestseller Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman proclaimed that "The greatest advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science and literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government." Instead, we owe it all to private enterprise.
For right-wing ideologues and the Palin, Beck and Limbaugh congregations, Friedman's claim has always had a lot of truthiness. It sounds so good that it must be true, and was made by a world-famous economist and Nobel laureate.
However, the claim is not only false, but strikingly ignorant coming from a professor at one of our most famous universities. Had Dr. Friedman ever heard of the Acropolis, or the road and aqueduct systems, magnificent public buildings and other engineering marvels created by the imperial government of Rome? Did he notice the Apollo moon landing in 1969?
Friedman (1912-2006) lived to see the economic and cultural revolution brought about by the Internet. Its development was funded and overseen for three decades by the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Department. The NSF finally turned it over to commercial providers in 1995, launching the dotcom boom.
The idea for the Internet originated with Robert W. Taylor, an ARPA researcher in 1966. Taylor tried unsuccessfully to get private industry interested in his project. Fortunately for us all, he got federal funding.
America's strong economic growth over the past 65 years depended on its leadership in basic scientific and engineering research. This research spawned technological innovations that made firms more competitive and even gave rise to entirely new industries. As Ed Lazowska, one of America's leading computer scientists, explained to the House Subcommittee on Technology and Information Policy in July of 2004: "The innovation that creates the technologies that drive the new economy today is the fruit of investments the federal government made in basic research 10, 15, 30 years ago."
Besides the Internet, the list includes web browsers, public key cryptography for secure credit card transactions, parallel database systems, high performance computer graphics, and portable devices such as cell phones.
Why is major government support for basic research necessary? Why can't private enterprise play this role, as conservative ideologues would have it?
The reasons are straightforward and point to a major flaw in market fundamentalism. Private corporations, even the largest, invest little or nothing in basic research because it is long-term, often stretching out for decades. Its outcomes are uncertain and its impact on markets is not easily predicted.
Moreover, this research is necessarily public, calling for peer review and publication. It can't be kept secret for the profit of the company funding it.
The distinction between basic or fundamental research and the kind of research funded by corporations and leading to patented applications can be fuzzy at the margins. But it is a hugely important distinction that we ignore at our peril.
For instance, it may be in the interest of society to allow a company to patent a bacterium that it has genetically engineered to decompose plastic. But we would not want patents on the underlying bioscience that makes such applications possible.
The partnership of government funding of basic research and private for-profit funding of applied research is essential to the progress of our scientific knowledge and economic prosperity. Like national defense and the administration of justice, funding basic research depends on revenues from taxation.
That's one of the reasons why I get very tired of mindless tirades against government. Here's Doctor Friedman again, in a 2003 interview: "I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it's possible."
His dread of government seeps through these words. He was near the end of his life-long battle to hobble government. But he has successfully passed the torch on to the Republican Party today.
They are the party of "NO." No to what the preamble to the Constitution refers to as "We the people of the United States" acting collectively to "promote the general welfare."