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.

History bears this out. Though ideas and state have never been completely separated, for a few centuries in America (and the UK) they largely were. People were left free to think, investigate, and experiment -- and to succeed or fail accordingly. Those who used their minds for reality-based productive work were generally rewarded. The paragons here are the famous industrialists from Thomas Edison to John Rockefeller to Henry Ford. But it’s true in other fields too. Darwin, Maxwell, Watson, and Rand enjoyed material and spiritual success -- despite having challenged the accepted wisdom of their day. At the same time, mystics, charlatans, and the intellectually indolent fared poorly -- both materially and in the esteem of their fellow men.

This all changes when freedom is abridged and when the state compels taxpayers to support ideas against their will.

Here the example of Islam is germane. Its essence is faith, submission, and an overriding concern with an afterlife. Historically (except for a brief Aristotelian golden age) its adherents kept the ideology relatively undiluted, and accordingly, Islamists experienced little existential success. Indeed, King Saud inadvertently summed up the relevant causal relationship, when in 1941 he observed: “The Arabs have the religion, but the Allies have the money.”  Only when Islamists were assisted by -- and then permitted to forcibly nationalize[iv] -- the products of Western ideas (e.g. the science, technology and capital to develop oil) did they gain the means to spread their  ideas more broadly.

Most Americans today recognize the dearth of scientific and productive achievement that a policy of faith and submission engenders -- and they deprecate it accordingly. But when seemingly credible sources such as NASA engage in blatantly false and appeasing propaganda, doubts can creep in. The immorality of NASA’s new policy is precisely that it gives Islam an undeserved sheen of intellectual respectability and stature -- one which it couldn’t possibly gain on its own.

Yet Western support and appeasement of Islam is but one example of certain ideologies gaining power at the hands of the good. Unfortunately, such examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. For instance, the murderous regimes in the former Soviet Union relied heavily on Western intellectuals for material and moral support. Similarly, today’s virulently anti-reason postmodernist professors couldn’t teach or convey their ideologies without heavy (taxpayer) subsidies. Not only would such professors be unable to compete in a marketplace of ideas, but any student actually adhering to their teaching simply couldn’t function in modern society. Such professors -- and the ideas they advocate -- would literally destroy themselves.

Of course this isn’t to say that separating ideas from state would be a panacea. Some dangerous ideas would likely still be funded through the ignorance, error, or sheer malice of private individuals.

But such a separation would constitute an immensely positive development. It would greatly diminish the power of the many ideologies that currently threaten us. It would largely dissipate the “winner takes all” disputes that now dominate the political landscape. It would allow good ideas to compete and prosper. And, most importantly, it would respect each man’s sacred right to his own freedom of conscience.

* * * * * * *

[i] As an example of an alternative, I recommend Bill Whittle’s Afterburner segment chronicling the rise and viability of private enterprise in space exploration.

[ii] Admittedly some of the Founders were inconsistent on this latter point. Several favored a modicum of state support for education to maintain an informed populace. They were unaware of the historical success of private education and, as products of the Enlightenment, they couldn’t begin to imagine the conflicts that now arise. Were they around today, I’m confident they’d reconcile their inconsistency in favor of private schools — not public education.

[iii] This, of course, is no accident. Political rights in the Lockean tradition are designed to protect a man’s ability to reason and produce. But the case is made much stronger by Ayn Rand’s crucial observations regarding the nature of good and evil.

[iv] See Daniel Yergin’s The Prize for the sordid story of  Western governments encouraging petroleum companies to develop oil in the Middle East and then failing to protect them when the sheiks decided to nationalize their property.