You’ll have heard that line of argument about cancer scientists, right?
The one where they’re just in it for the government grant money and that they don’t really want to find a cure, because if they did they’d be out of a job?
No, of course you haven’t. That’s because it’s ridiculous and a bit, well, vomit-inducing.
To make such an argument, you would need to be deeply cynical about people’s motives for consistently putting their own pay packets above the welfare of millions of people.
You would have to think that scientists were not motivated to help their fellow human beings, but instead were driven only by self-interest.
Suggesting that climate scientists are pushing a line about global warming because their salaries depend on it is a popular talking point that deniers love to throw around.
But why do so many “sceptics”, particularly those who form part of the organised machinery of climate science denial, feel comfortable in accusing climate scientists of only being in it for the money?
Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean suggests some answers in her new book Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
The book documents how wealthy conservatives, in particular petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch, teamed up with neoliberal academics with the objective, MacLean says, of undermining the functions of government in the United States.
MacLean’s central character is the late James McGill Buchanan, a political theorist and economist who won a Nobel award in 1986 for his development of “public choice theory”.
Buchanan and Koch developed and propagated their ideas through a private organisation called the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) – an influential group known as the “neoliberal thought collective” that was established in 1947 by famed free market economist Friedrich Hayek. Buchanan was a former president and joined in 1957. Koch, who has poured millions into groups attacking mainstream climate science, joined MPS in 1970.
MPS has about 500 members in more than 40 countries.
In the US it has many members who also work at think tanks that push climate science misinformation and attack renewable energy. A membership list from 2010 showed Australian members included the Institute of Public Affairs boss John Roskam, former prime minister John Howard, business figure Maurice Newman and former senator Bob Day.
MacLean argues that in the minds of many exponents of this “public choice” school, people are motivated primarily by self-interest.
Public choice advocates will argue that people who work in government will push for increased departmental budgets primarily to protect their job prospects.
In an interview at the Brisbane writers festival, MacLean told me: “If you read some of the stuff that comes out of the people in the ‘public choice’ school, they will say that these climate scientists are just after the next federal grant … they will try and discredit them as human beings. It’s really toxic stuff.”
When Buchanan received his Nobel award, Prof Steven Kelman, at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy school of government, wrote that Buchanan’s view was a “terrible caricature of reality” and belied the public spirit of elected representatives and government officials.
This brings us back to the notion that cancer doctors might have a personal interest in not finding a cure. Proponents of public choice – including those who worked with Buchanan – have made just those claims.
In 1992, two academics from the Center for the Study of Public Choice at George Mason University (a centre established and led by Buchanan), wrote a book called The Economics of Smoking. In the book, economist Robert Tollison argued that the “anti-cancer bureaucracy will face weaker incentives to find and develop effective treatments of and cures for cancer, as well as facing incentives to magnify the risks of cancer”.
“A cure for cancer would put many cancer bureaucrats out of work,” Tollison wrote.
So the argument goes that these anti-cancer “bureaucrats” were not so much motivated to protect people from painful and deadly conditions linked to smoking, such as cancer and heart disease. Instead, they might work a bit less stringently to find a cure in return for a wage.
There’s an irony in this accusation of people acting in their self-interest. Before and after writing that book chapter, Tollison was paid consultancy fees by the tobacco industry.
In the archives of tobacco documents released as part of US litigation, you can find a 1989 invoice sent to the Tobacco Institute for Tollison’s work on a “media tour”.
In 1993, the archives reveal, Tollison and his GMU colleague Robert Wagner, who co-wrote The Economics of Smoking, pitched to the tobacco industry a report attacking the World Health Organization, which would cost $20,000.
Again, the pair would accuse “WHO bureaucrats” of engaging in spending patterns that “reflect the interests of bureaucrats”. The WHO should not be spending money on programs “against cigarettes”, the pair wrote.
MacLean points to a Bloomberg column by the liberal economist and Buchanan acolyte Amity Schlaes, written after Buchanan’s death.
Schlaes wrote glowingly that Buchanan’s “public-choice theory explained everything” to her about the true motives of public officials.
“Health officials’ interests in testing small children’s blood for lead made sense when one considered that finding poisoned children validated their jobs,” wrote Schlaes, who became a member of the Mont Pelerin Society in 2008.
“This is how someone could think,” MacLean tells me. “That a doctor would not be concerned about preventing a child from getting lifelong brain damage … no … they just wanted to expand their checking accounts. It’s really toxic.
“You’ve created this toxic wasteland now, and you can see the damage that those ideas have done,” she says.
It would be hopelessly naive to argue that money never motivates people to do certain things.
But to suggest global warming exists only because climate scientists need the money, you need to ignore melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, increasing extreme weather events, strings of record hot years, retreating glaciers, acidifying oceans, warming sea temperatures and bleaching corals. Or claim there is a conspiracy to manufacture these impacts in exchange for a wage.
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