Why I Will Not Support Cures For California (and Why You Probably Should)

The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative is underway, with eight weeks to gain a million signatures. If sucessful, it goes on the November 2004 ballot:

More than 120 million Americans suffer from chronic and life-threatening diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, ALS, osteoporosis and spinal-cord injuries. More than two million people die every year. Now or in the future, you or one of your family members or friends may be stricken with one of these devastating medical conditions. In fact, they affect a child or adult in 40% of all families. They also create hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs annually. And, until recently, there was no real hope of cures.

Now, the promise of cures is within reach...

Recently, medical researchers have discovered that many diseases and injuries could be successfully treated or cured by new regenerative medicine therapies involving a special type of human cells, called stem cells. Stem cells are "unspecialized" cells that can generate healthy new cells and tissues. As a result, they have the potential to provide lifesaving cures for many different diseases and injuries.


The initiative authorizes state bonds that will provide an average of $250 million per year over a 10 year period to fund stem cell research by scientists at California's universities and other advanced medical research facilities throughout the state.

Why will I not be supporting this? Because I am libertarian, and economic science has adequately demonstrated that all government-controlled spending is more harmful to progress than the alternatives (free markets and individual choice). I am a pragmatist, and I realize that my position is shared by only a small minority of the population. However, by advocating the use of legislation to achieve the ends I approve of, I would become no better than those who are trying to use legislation to force a halt to medical research.

In a world (and past eras) of low taxation, many wealthy individuals use the monies otherwise lost to the government to fund the medical research that is not deemed commercially viable. In this world, today, very few individuals become wealthy enough to do this - but they still do it. Look at the efforts of John Sperling or Paul Allen. It doesn't require a 30% tax rate and a huge government to make research happen - in fact, the presence of government slows and hampers research far more than it helps. Governments throw up barriers, distort prices, make research inefficient in a hundred different ways, legislate against new technologies and occasionally, just once in a while, throw a little of the loot gained through taxation into medical research. You can't just pick and choose - if you support part of this process, you are helping to support it all.

These, however, are my principles. As I noted, they are not widely shared outside libertarian circles. You, the reader, are probably quite comfortable with today's level of taxation, the size and scope of government, and the ballot and bond-issuing process in California. If so, then you should certainly support the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative: in your value system, it is a very rational choice for the future of your health and longevity.

As for myself, I am still deciding how to present this somewhat contradictory message in a user friendly manner at the Longevity Meme. On the one hand, I do provide a service, and most of the people I provide that service to disagree with me on this issue. On the other hand, I have my integrity, which - as I have previous noted here - is very important to both myself and the nature of these websites. It's something of a quandry, but I can't take too long to decide on a solution given the deadline for ballot signatures.


Your dilemma illustrates why I'm not a Libertarian.

First, let me explain how we are alike. I'm a small government fiscal conservative. I own a gun - many guns actually. I believe in free speech, and I practice it as well.

But I believe government has a place. What entity except for a government can defend the nation, guard the borders, build highways, or plan cities?

We are beginning to see a commercial space program take shape. That will be wonderful, but it took a government effort 33 years ago to put a man on the moon. And there are many examples of scientific projects that the private sector will never support - the supercollider for example.

You mentioned wealthy individuals taking up the slack if the government didn't confiscate so much wealth with taxes. No doubt you are thinking of examples like John Sperling.


For every John Sperling we get dozens of super rich people who use their wealth solely for their own pleasure - they build huge homes they rarely use and buy boats they never sail. I understand that even these seemingly wasteful projects stimulate the economy. Fine. But why not stimulate the economy by supporting things we as a society believe in? Things like anti-aging research.

Libertarians discount societal interests in favor of individual freedom. Liberals (and sometimes we on the Right as well) tend to discount individual freedom in favor of societal interests.

I believe the two should be balanced. I am an individual. I have rights and freedoms that should be preserved. I am also part of a society. Society has interests that should be advanced, even when I disagree as an individual, as long as society is governed by representation of individuals.

When it comes to tax policy I believe that government should adopt a tax structure that maximizes long-term tax revenue. I can just hear you screaming "What!?" But I'm serious. By keeping marginal taxes within certain bounds, the private economy is stimulated (or is less harmed) which ultimately results in higher tax revenue. The point of highest tax revenue is the apex of the Laffer Curve.


Applying all of this to the subject of your post, Californians should support the California initiative. You should support it as well. Integrity is admirable, but pragmatism can be also.

You accept that your position is that of a small minority and will, therefore, never be be "the law of the land." Why not, then, seek incremental victory where you can? It's like the right wing fundamentalist staying home election day because both candidates support the "right to choose." Or the environmentalist wasting a vote on Nader. If you think your voice matters, play the game within the bounds set by society. Don't disqualify yourself from public life because you'd rather be playing a different game.

-Stephen Gordon

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at March 5th, 2004 11:43 AM

Firstly, I (and many other people) don't accept that only a government can perform the functions listed above. Historical and contemporary examples of private, market-based planning and supply of service exist for all of them, but I'll refrain from arging libertarian theory too much here.

I'm pragmatic and goal-oriented, meaning that I'd ditch the libertarian principles in favor of extending lives if I thought that state funding was better in the mid to long term (next few decades) for the process of advancing science. With longer lives, you can always spend more time to work on solving problems of politics and efficiency later. If you're dead, you can't. I'm a strong proponent of "first things first."

However, the downside of an expansive state (its effects on economic growth, slowing progress, legislating and regulating) almost certainly overwhelms any benefit from these comparatively small programs - only a few billion dollars - over those timescales. Far greater damage is done elsewhere to research that might have happened if not for the economic and legislative disincentives that come along with government.

It is an open argument, however, as to how pragmatic one should be when efforts are underway to expand the size of government in a way that directly benefits your own goals. It can be viewed, as many people do, as better to be getting a little money if the government is going to be growing anyway...but from where I stand, a large part of the problem is that everyone thinks that way.

Posted by: Reason at March 5th, 2004 3:00 PM

Stem cell research is best served by a combination of private and public efforts. The public participation is crucial for several reasons. For one, private appropriation of the research means proprietary knowledge -- and the non-disclosure sagreements that scientists and engineers sign. This is very harmful to the open inquiry we need in order to advance stem cell research. Researchers need to be able to communicate freely with one another, sharing information, so that the entire enterprise can best move forward. Privately organized biotech does not make that kind of sharing a priority, and can even stifle it. Patents in the domain of biomedical research are a notorious problem -- a researcher wants to use an experimental methhod or product, and then discovers that there's a patent on it. You can usually work around this kind of obstacle, but sometimes it is sufficient to block a promosing research path.

Second, there are aspects of stem cell inquiry -- much of the basic science -- that are unlikely to make sense to any entrepreneur whose bottom line is profit.

By the way, please participate in the Stem Cell Action Network, http://www.stemcellaction.org. We need your help!

Raymond Barglow, Ph.D.

Posted by: Raymond Barglow at July 16th, 2004 1:05 PM
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