Pharma, Protectionism, and Corporate Influence on Governments

Salon had an interesting item recently: Big Pharma’s protectionist trade agreements, by Andrew Leonard (If you’re not a Salon subscriber, you have to view an ad in order to get to read this article for free.)

The article is basically about efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to manipulate international trade regulations as a means of protecting intellectual property (i.e., keeping the price of their products high).

The standard industry argument is that Big Pharma needs the reward of big profits to subsidize the huge expense of research and development. There is some merit to this argument. Without the incentive of any profit at all, the Pfizers and Lillys and Mercks simply wouldn’t exist. But the question is not whether it is immoral for pharmaceutical companies to make a buck; the question should always be how does one best balance the public interest with the private? How much I.P. protection is too much?

There’s no easy answer to that question, and reasonable people can disagree on such questions as how long the term of a patent should extend. But reasonable people can also expect that profit-seeking enterprises do not control the governmental policymaking process — that’s a complete perversion of the purpose of government, and that is exactly what is currently standard practice in the United States. It’s bad enough that in the Medicare Drug Prescription Benefit Act, Medicare was explicitly forbidden from using its purchasing power leverage to negotiate price discounts. It’s positively ludicrous that Big Pharma should then proceed to attempt to prevent any government, anywhere, from using its power to operate in the public health interest.

I’m no fan of Big Pharma. They’ve earned their bad rep. But the problem of corporate lobbying is perhaps more subtle than Leonard is allowing, here. Of course we don’t want corporations controlling the policymaking process. But that’s quite different from saying we don’t want them participating in that process. (Admittedly, the latter might sometimes be an attractive idea, too. But it would require serious constraints on free speech, and would hinder policymakers’ access to the crucial information often held by corporations).

Secondly, it’s not so obviously “ludicrous” that a company should attempt to prevent a government from operating in the public interest. Neither you nor I nor any corporation is obligated always to put the public good above our own. If the public good demanded that my home be expropriated to make way for a freeway, I would work hard to oppose that. Rights (human rights, property rights, etc.) put legitimate constraints on the pursuit of the collective good. Of course, the exact nature and meaning of any given right is, in the end, up for debate and negotiation. Perhaps, for example, our understanding of intellectual property rights ought to be a consequentialist one, rather than one rooted in the natural right to the fruit of one’s labour. But in the absence of a definitive answer to that debate, it’s far from ludicrous for a company (pharma or other) to work — within the law & within the rules governing corporate political involvement — to defend its intellectual property.

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