The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 16, Number 9
Government and the Genome
by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Can government do a better job than private markets in any area of the economy? Consider: The
tax-funded Human Genome Project, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, has been the
toast of the
scientific elite for nearly a decade. It held out the promise of mapping of the entire structure of
DNA, which in turn would lead to unparalleled medical breakthroughs and a new era for
When first proposed, this program appeared to be a project ideally suited for full government
It had undeniable scientific merit, much more than, say, the ongoing space-exploration racket.
with a price tag of $3 billion, gene mapping was too expensive, too elaborate, and too long-range
be privately funded. Government may fumble at everything else, but here, at last, is surely
government could get right.
It hasn't turned out that way. Now at the halfway point in its funding term, the Project has
at a snail's pace, mapping a mere 4 percent of DNA. And experience tells us precisely where the
program is headed: deadlines pushing ever further into the future with Congress approving
higher funding requests until the end of time. Like fixing federal highways or winning the war on
poverty, the work is never to be finished because no one involved wants to see an end to the
Unlike most government programs, however, the Human Genome Project is not just an excuse to
money. What it was to create would have become the new foundation of human biology.
complete DNA mapping holds out the prospects of individualized medicines, of tailoring drugs
treatments according to specific needs. In short, genome mapping would dramatically improve
quality of life.
Thus, the benefits would not only have been scientific. It would have opened a huge new
market for spin-off products. Precisely because
of the prospect of the commercial
use of the research,
biotech companies would not wait until the end of time for the National Institutes of Health to
announce its results. And they didn't.
This spring, a consortium of scientists, completely separate from the government project,
they could complete the gene mapping in a mere three years at an estimated cost of $200 million.
rather than demand tax funding, scientists at the non-profit Institute for Genomic Research said
would rely on funding from for-profit scientific-instrument maker Perkin-Elmer.
The announcement should have been the occasion for celebration. Instead, it sent government
into fits. They warned of the dangers of such valuable information being in the hands of a private
company. An "ethicist" at the University of Pennsylvania raised ominous questions about the
of the "largest scientific revolution of the next century" being "done under private auspices."
The implication is that government always uses such information with more prudence than
Sure: with nuclear technology, the government needlessly massacred foreigners; private industry
it to provide electricity.
But there are solid economic reasons why government and technological innovation do not go
Lacking commercial markets for their projects, the incentive for researchers is not to innovate but
delay in order to maintain the status quo. Lacking the ability to calculate economically, managers
government ventures are without a clue as to how much should be allocated to salaries,
research to achieve optimal results. And lacking the economic necessity to compete, researchers
the drive to discover new and cost-saving ways to achieve their goals.
The reason was spotted by Ludwig von Mises back in 1920, with his attack on socialism, and in
with his attack on bureaucracy. The principles of profit and loss, private property and contract,
enterprise and entrepreneurship, do not exist in government. Government operates with an eye to
own short-term survival, and those of its connected interest groups, and nothing else.
There are lessons to be learned. It turns out that even a highbrow, scientific undertaking like the
Human Genome Project is not immune from the laws of economics. In the end, like everything
government undertakes, it wasn't up to the standards set by private enterprise, the real hero
every serious advance in science and health and quality of life dating back as far as the eye can
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.