Monday, April 30, 2007

Seavey Letter in Wall Street Journal Today

Hey, I’ve got a letter in the Wall Street Journal this morning, defending drug patents and criticizing Doctors Without Borders (my general attitude is, why go after the usual targets?).

It’s fairly typical of the sorts of arguments made by the group I work for, the American Council on Science and Health. With even a friend (!) of mine (and one of our past debaters at Lolita Bar, to boot) accusing libertarians (like me and two or three of my co-workers, I suppose) of lacking “empathy” (based on my recent post “Aborting Feminism,” to which hers is the seventy-first posted Response), I think it’s worth reading the WSJ letter and making a good-faith effort to discern how my reasoning in it is motivated at base by utilitarian concerns rather than, oh, say, evil.

(The commenter in question has expressed concern in the past that I’m not only insufficiently feminist but insufficiently concerned about Third-World poverty or else I wouldn’t be so keen to protect First-World profits — but I offer as an exercise for the similarly-concerned reader the finding in the WSJ letter of a kernel of explanation of how I might see the developing-world and developed-world situations as connected, and both in need of more capitalism, not less — but happy May Day nonetheless, comrades.)


Perry E. Metzger said...

I’m not sure I think that patents are a particularly good thing from a utilitarian point of view.

In addition to the fact that they require the machinery of a state to enforce, they also have a pretty bad history from the point of view of accomplishing the supposed goal of encouraging innovation.

lndeed, I’m not sure the evidence for them is particularly good at all. Mostly they appear to be a form of rent seeking.

Yancey Ward said...



Patents in regards to pharmaceuticals are a necessary evil (if you want new and better pharmaceuticals) because of the barriers government itself puts up to drug approval. Without the granted monopoly period, the capital invested in discovery and development could not be recovered because the final products themselves are easily identified and replicated. Without patents, almost none of the pharmaceuticals found and developed over the last 50 years would be available today, given the existence of the FDA.

X. Trapnel said...

So the answer to one layer of state coercion is another layer of state-bestowed privilege? If you want the solid economic case against copyrights and patents, check out Against Intellectual Monopoly by Levine and Boldrin here: … patents are hardly more “free market” than were the old traditional state-granted monopolies.

Anne E said...

Here’s a data point for you…anecdotal, and filtered through family lore, but I’ll stab. My grandfather worked on the penicillin project during WWII, on the mass production of the drug, which was a particular challenge due to the fragility of the mold culture. After his team came up with the technology, he opted not to patent it(according to family legend), much to the chagrin of his competitive (and shareholding) colleagues, because offering up the method would save more lives. Soldiers were suffering and dying from secondary infections and a huge number of lives were saved in the field, and in civilian hospitals too.

The right choice? If you ask anyone from that era who benefited from the drug, an emphatic yes. But the irony of antibiotics is that their liberal use only makes the bacteria mutate faster.

Was that choice, made in the duress of war, the best one long term? Would patenting have made any difference in the efficacy of the drug today? Does it even matter, our issues now, given the dire situation at the time? I’m no scientist, or ethicist, but I often wonder.

My grandfather’s team got plenty of glory and continued motivation to work, so I don’t think that’s a factor. The bigger issue to me is the role patents play (if any) in protecting public health. I can’t pick a side on this debate.

Anyway, hope I got my facts straight.

Yancey Ward said...

X. Trapnel,

Believe me, I am no defender of patents, I am just pointing out what their purpose is in regards to pharmaceuticals. I agree completely with the fundamental intellectual argument against them, but I do so while recognizing that we would not have new pharmaceuticals without them in the present regulatory environment.

X. Trapnel said...


The trick is properly specifying the counterfactual. In a world where enough support could be mustered behind copyright-and-patent abolition, is it reasonable to expect that the FDA testing regime, &c., would remain identical? That your conclusion is “we would not have new pharmaceuticals” is a good sign something has gone wrong in specifying the scenario; clearly such an outcome could not be a political-economic equilibrium.

Yancey Ward said...

X. Trapnel,

I see your point, and you are probably correct, maybe to a much greater extent than I am capable of imagining.