Libertarians and ‘free market’ advocates in general claim that markets reflect people’s decisions and values better than any other social institution, and so ‘freedom’ is maximized when markets are ‘unfettered.’ The New Scientist for May 24 has an important example of how immensely dense this view is.
Supposedly profit encourages investment in technologies while competition guarantees their continual improvement.
It all depends.
Antibiotics have a limited life because bacteria will gradually develop resistance to them, necessitating the continual development of new antibiotics. But the market encourages speeding up the development of bacterial resistance because profits come from sales, the more sales the more profits. The more an antibiotic is used the quicker bacteria develop resistance.
A great deal of antibiotics today are not even used to save human lives, 80% are used to help factory farms make more money. Low levels of antibiotics are routinely added to the feed or water of poultry, cattle, and swine to promote faster growth and prevent infections that can occur when animals are housed in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
The resulting problems are lethal and getting worse. Nearly 2 million Americans annually develop hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) the vast majority of which are due to antibacterial (antibiotic)-resistant pathogens. About 99,000 die. But the ‘miracle of the market’ testifies that we are all better off because profits are higher from the sale of antibiotics to agriculture.
The incentives for developing new antibiotics are perverse for other reasons. Older antibiotics that still work are off patent, and so cheap. New antibiotics must be priced fairly low even with patents to compete with them- until the older ones are rendered obsolete by the development of resistance. But it takes time to develop new antibiotics, time and money.
Eighteen big companies were researching antibiotics in 1990, five are doing so in 2011.
From this situation several lessons emerge.
First, the market interacts poorly with ecological and environmental principles. The market ignores them in the short run but in doing so increases the lack of fit with greater risks on the long run. Global warming is the most dangerous example of this lack of fit, but the decline of effective antibiotics might ultimately be just as bad.
Second, solutions require not letting market forces be dominant. They are useful servants but deadly masters. Two possible solutions to the problem reported in New Scientist are first, use government money to develop drugs that will not be profitable and the second is to de-link drug profits from sales but funding research into new ones through prizes and grants rather than anticipated future sales. Debora Mackenzie writes in such a case some such drugs “may not be sold at all unless absolutely needed.”
Third, what I call “public values,” that is, values that people believe need more support than will come from market or other formally voluntary forces along, are an essential aspect of civilized life, and as the market mentality gradually erodes people’s ability to appreciate this fact, the quality of life will decline for most people.
Fourth, it should be illegal to use antibiotics necessary for protecting human health to enlarge the profit of factory farms.
As an ideology rather than a set of insights some of which are important, libertarianism is morally and practically bankrupt. We can only wonder how much suffering and possibly death will have to take place before its advocates will realize that. Given the reality of many Communists’ adherence to their ideology even after Stalin and Mao, my hopes are not high, though I’d love to be proven wrong.