Politicians Promise to Cure Cancer, but They Can Only Prevent a Cure

Before you cheer for politicians promising medical breakthroughs, realize their actions may prevent the discovery of cancer cures.

Few of us have not experienced a family member or friend dying from cancer. Politicians love to make promises they can’t keep, so why not promise a cure for cancer? In early campaigning, Trump and Biden are trying to outdo each other in promising a cure. Even a libertarian might be forgiven for thinking, If the government is going to spend my money, at least cancer research is a good use.

Cancer Has Many Causes

Biden went first:

I promise you if I'm elected president, you're going to see the single most important thing that changes America. We're gonna cure cancer.

Not to be outdone, Trump promised to cure cancer and “many problems.”

We will come up with the cures to many, many problems, to many, many diseases—including cancer… We will eradicate AIDS in America once and for all.

Cancer doesn’t have one cause. Deanna Attai, an assistant clinical professor of surgery at UCLA, said cancer is characterized by cells that "take on a life of their own." Cancer cells “can mutate, change and evade the drugs scientists develop.”

Reduction of cancer death rates depends upon factors in and not in an individual’s control. Some face environmental hazards; others smoke and lead sedentary lives.

Suppose scientists are wrong in their consensus that cancer has many causes. Suppose there is one single cure. Could government funding help discover it? The answer is still no.

Innovation Is Emergent

Steven Johnson is an expert on how great innovations originate and spread. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, he writes that we have a tendency “to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified traditions.”

The “great man” belief about breakthroughs is false. Johnson continues, “We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

Johnson points us to a term scientist Stuart Kauffman coined the adjacent possible. The adjacent possible, Johnson writes, “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.” Innovation is emergent. Johnson uses the metaphor of a house to explain why.

Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room you haven't visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn't have reached from your original starting point.

Johnson adds, “Keep opening new doors and eventually you'll have built a palace.” Government funding is an unlikely source for supporting an emergent process. By its very nature, an emergent process means a central planner can’t know where to direct resources.

Government Obstructs Emergence

In his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, Tom Bethell explains how cancer research has been “obstructed” by the government. The government doesn’t fund conflicting theories. Instead, Bethell writes, they let the cancer “experts” “form a consensus among themselves, form committees, and… allocate the funds that way.”

In contrast, Bethell writes, “private-sector research is trial and error, by its nature.” He continues:

Capital is invested in a wide range of ideas and approaches, and maybe only one will pay off. In the private sector it's called risk, not waste. The greatest scientific advances we have seen in recent decades, in the field of computer and information technology, did involve a great deal of risk and a great deal of “wasted” investment. But there was tremendous progress.

Competition among ideas is necessary for breakthroughs. Bethell adds, “When any single source of funding dominates, science will almost certainly become the handmaiden of politics.”

Technology Drives Science

If you ask most people what drives innovation, they would probably answer government. For both economists and scientists, writes Matt Ridley in his book The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, 

It has been an article of faith for decades… that science would not get funded if government did not do it, and economic growth would not happen if science was not funded by the taxpayer.

This article of faith is dead wrong, observes Ridley. Basing his ideas on Professor Terence Kealey’s book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, Ridley writes, "Once you examine the history of innovation, you find scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change." In short, "new technologies give academics things to study."

Ridley’s and Kealey’s conclusions have startling implications. It is practical people—entrepreneurs—who innovate, and then the science is built to explain the innovation.

Ridley writes,

Having made innovations, [industry] will then pay for research into the principles behind them… Having invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics.

Adam Smith on Innovation

Adam Smith, Kealey observes, “did not believe government should commission science” and “was very suspicious of interest groups who appealed for public money.” In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote that appeals for public money

ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted until after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous but with the most suspicious attention.

Those who ask for public money, Smith wrote, “Have generally an interest to deceive the public.”

Kealey writes:

Smith did not believe that applied science flowed very much from pure science; indeed he believed the opposite was as likely to be true. Moreover, he believed that applied science or technology sprang from the market place, spawned by individuals or companies competing for profits.

In short, if you want breakthroughs in cancer research—treatments that extend lives with fewer side effects—get government out and let companies compete.

History has proven Smith right. Ridley writes,

In 2007, Leo Sveikauskas of the Bureau of Economic Analysis concluded that returns for many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero, and that "many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all."

Why would that be? Government crowds out productive research by betting on the wrong horses—those who seek funding by dipping their hands in the public till. As Ridley puts it, “If the government spends money on the wrong kind of science, it tends to stop people working on the right kind of science.”

Before you cheer for politicians promising medical breakthroughs, realize their actions may prevent the discovery of cancer cures.

More by Barry Brownstein