Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Everybody "Knows" Government is the Problem, Not the Solution

Here's a bit out of a post by Maxine Udall on her blog Girl Economist that pops that balloon, a favourite mantra of the political right:
My own personal favorite example of the government being an important part of the solution is penicillin, an antibiotic that has saved many lives.

In 1940, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, at Oxford University, produced enough stable chemical from a mold, penicillium, to test on mice infected with streptococcus. Of eight infected, 4 were treated and recovered rapidly. "Eureka!," you say. "The rest is history, yes?"

Well, no. Not quite.

Florey and a colleague packed up their penicillin and their results and took them to major pharmaceutical companies in the UK, the US, and Canada. None wanted to invest the capital in scaling it for production, mainly because there were signs that bacteria were becoming resistant to the sulfa drugs they were already manufacturing. Even if penicillin were effective for a while, it would eventually become ineffective and demand would dwindle. Where's the profit in that, they rightly asked?

So how did we the people get penicillin (and the many subsequent antibiotics that repeatedly haul us back from the brink of death, bronchitis, and septicemia)? The US government stepped in. The US military pushed a bit on this. After all, who better to sense on the eve of war the potential gains from a new antibiotic? Roughly half of all deaths in at least one previous war had been from infection.

It was a group of government scientists at the US Department of Agriculture who scaled production and increased the drug's efficacy four-fold. And in record time. Imagine. Guvmint scientists produced something quickly, efficiently, and made it (and us) better.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that surely now, after the US government and the US taxpayers had volunteered the start up costs, the drugs manufacturers must have agreed to produce it, yes? By the time it had been scaled, it was more apparent than ever that the US might be drawn into a major world war. The military wanted it. Surely an appeal to patriotic duty would move them?

No. I'm afraid not. Not until George Merck, CEO of Merck & Company, agreed to do it and persuaded the heads of several other manufacturers to join him.
I find it amusing that the ideologues of the right think that business can do no wrong. The problem is, these fanatics don't know history, don't know business, don't understand human nature, can't appreciate what a well functioning government bureaucracy can do, and refuse to look at facts. Udall's example is excellent. It isn't unique and it is not rare. Most government activity is hum-drum useful stuff. But if you are an ideologue, "the only good government is a hamstrung, shunk-down, minimalist government". This is just as wrong as the 19th century brain-dead racist maxim "the only good injun is a dead injun".

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