Sunday, July 1, 2007

Stevie Joe and Free Market Philosophy

Jonas Salk never sought a patent for his polio vaccine. He said, "Who owns my polio vaccine? The people! Could you patent the sun?"

Adam Smith and his "invisible hand" of the free market created the concept that acting in our own self-interest was the most efficient way to promote the public good. Instead of donating $20,000 to charity to assist struggling families, I can buy a $20,000 car and provide jobs at the factory, health insurance, and other social benefits. Plus, I get to keep the car. Adam Smith made it okay to be selfish.

So, what's wrong with this view of the world? Maybe a few things. First, it promotes a consumerism that is not necessarily environmentally sustainable, and it places a higher value on things than anything else. Unfortunately, we often learn through experience that happiness does not come from our things.

Second, Smith's view suggests that selfishness is not only okay but it is desirable. While this might be good economically in the short-term, it doesn't do much to help the people of the world co-exist peacefully.

Third, sometimes Adam Smith is just plain wrong. If Jonas Salk acted in his own interest, he would have patented his vaccine instead of giving it away. He could have raised the price and become a very rich man. However, the result would have been the suffering of thousands who could not afford his vaccine.

Salk valued something higher than money. He valued human life. Today, pharmaceutical corporations control the development of drugs, and the managers of those corporations have a legal responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profit. If they were to value something higher than money, they could find themselves the target of a shareholder lawsuit. So, HIV medications and other life-saving drugs are patented and sold at high profit margin. Thousands suffer while a few get rich.

Of course, the problem isn't limited to the drug industry. It's a philosophy that pervades our society. It is the belief that it is virtuous to be selfish. Or, a Gordon Gekko once put it, "Greed is good."

I'm not buying it,
Stevie Joe Parker

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