Read this: The subtitle in the article below notes an important critique of recent diversion in American priorities: “For most of human history, life-saving drugs were a public good. Now they’re only good for shareholders.” Is this really true and if so why? How did this happen? Can it be changed? The article in The Nation Magazine, by Fran Quigley looks at many perspectives on this issue. It is a long read, but well worth the effort.
According to Quigley this and similar economic trends dates back to, and is an extension of, what is called “the English enclosure movement”. It began “between the 15th and 19th centuries, (where) the rich and the powerful fenced off commonly held land and transformed it into private property. Land switched from a source of subsistence to a source of profit, and small farmers were relegated to wage laborers”. As British historian E.P. Thompson said, it was “a plain enough case of class robbery.” So once again we are faced with a situation where the wealthy and powerful have managed to manipulate a system to maximize the extraction of wealth from the pockets of the weak (and middle class) into their own bulging reserves. Here the “fenced-off commodity is life-saving medicine. Playing the role of modern-day lords of the manor are pharmaceutical corporations, which have taken a good that was once considered off-limits for private profiteering and turned it into an expensive commodity”.
If this bothers you, it should. It is time, as Bernie Sanders insists, that we get real angry, but this time we need to do something about it. As Quigley says “it’s time now to reclaim this commons, and reestablish medicines as a public good.” She goes on to spend quite a bit of time explaining that “public goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable in their consumption” and how these lead to “positive externalities”. Here she goes into the positives and negatives, that the existence or absence of this enclosure movement create. To the dismay of our free market fans she points out that ” for nearly all of human history, societies have treated medicine as a commonly held benefit. Until well past the middle of the 20th century, few countries allowed individuals or companies to hold exclusive rights to produce medicines. And governments have long been involved early and often in the pharmaceutical industry, creating the very opposite of a laissez-faire market.”
So can this trend be changed? Quigley points out that “when governments don’t take a sufficiently activist role in the field of medicines, public opinion pushes them further.” We can only hope that the pharmaceutical corporations are not already too big. “Among governments and the public alike, medicines continue to be treated as a good quite distinct from consumer items like cell phones or flat-screen TVs. A human right to access essential medicines has found its way into international treaties and national constitutions.”
“Pharmaceutical corporations justify enclosure by claiming that patents are necessary to spur innovation.” This is a difficult argument to swallow however. They “justify enclosure by claiming that patents are necessary to spur innovation”. History doesn’t actually support this argument pushing for the “evil of monopoly patents”. Quigley goes on to point out that actually “the history of pharmaceutical innovations, especially vaccine developments and life-saving treatments for infectious and chronic diseases, shows that the critical research behind these developments was created outside the patent system.”
Read the entire article. There is a lot more, but she ends with a call to action: ” A petition now circulating for a global research agreement calls on policymakers to “Make Medicines for People, Not Profit.” For that noble goal to be achieved, the fence surrounding essential medicines will need to be torn down once and for all.”