Ideas and the State

What do the following disputes -- running the cultural gamut -- have in common?

In education: Should creationism or evolution be taught in public schools? In science: Should we form de facto boards of inquisition to maintain the government-funded consensus on global warming? In arts: Should we support “diversity” in the form of the “Piss Christ”? Or should we engage in social engineering by funding art “that would show support for Obama’s domestic agenda”? And in a sad mixture of religion, politics, and science:  Should taxpayers continue to support NASA with an annual budget of $19 billion so that it can pursue its new mission to “engage … with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science”?

The answer? Each seeks to determine which ideas taxpayers must fund and support.  In so doing, each contributes to making modern politics more acrimonious and fractious than ever.

For the impact of resolving these questions goes well beyond their monetary costs. Ideas matter because they represent our personal grasp of the world and thereby shape our most intimate values. Hence, when we’re forced to support ideas we consider false and inimical to our views, the experience can be intellectually and emotionally eviscerating.

Yet in our current mixed economy, the result of any of the disputes listed above, and of countless others, is that the winner takes all. Whatever the outcome, lawmakers and politicians impose a certain course of action on everyone, whether or not they agree. Take, for instance, the issue of teaching creationism in public schools.Whichever camp loses is subject to, and forced to pay for, ideas they find loathsome.

But, we’re told,  such conflicts are inherent in the very nature of a democracy. So they are. This is precisely why the Founders explicitly rejected democracy (a.k.a. mob rule) to form a constitutional republic -- one whose sole purpose is to protect individual rights.

In such a system men are left free to decide for themselves which ideas to accept and support. No one is able to forcibly impose their ideas on others. The rationale is the same as for the separation of church and state: People must be free to hold a conclusion because they deem it reasonable. Forcing them to support ideas against their own judgment constitutes an acute violation of their freedom of conscience. (For an example of these types of arguments, see Madison’s "Memorial and Remonstrance," in particular points 1, 9 and 15.)

But if people are to choose and support ideas for themselves, they must retain the means to do so. That is, private individuals must be the ones deciding where their own money goes without state interference. Accordingly, there’s simply no room for an NEA, NSF, NASA[i] or even public education[ii].  Instead, funding ideas becomes a question of trade and (rational) persuasion. Educators present parents with explanations for their choice of curricula. Scientists explain the potential value of their research to investors or benefactors. Artists demonstrate the merits of their work. Religious groups preach to congregations who attend and tithe voluntarily.

In the process, it’s no longer winner takes all. Funds are distributed in many directions, each according to customers’ and patrons’ personal decisions.

But the case for separating ideas from the state doesn’t rest solely on abstract arguments. It also works[iii]. Why? Because under freedom, good ideas -- by virtue of conforming to reality -- can succeed and support themselves. Conversely, bad ideas, when left alone, tend to wither and fail.