login about faq

In the 1800s and early 1900s, drugs were unregulated and the market was flooded with patent "medicines" and "miracle cures". These were peddled by legitimate companies as well as hucksters. Many medicines then contained poisons or were totally ineffective. In many ways, consumers became a large "beta test" site for medicine businesses. Some medicines worked OK (morphine) others were utter disasters (radium cures). Many people were hurt by folks selling concoctions that were supposed to be cures when in reality they were poisons (a good piece on this is here: http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2004-08/healthy-glow-drink-radiation).

My question is this: if government is not supposed to meddle with businesses, then is it pretty much OK that medicine companies use the public at large as guinea pigs for what they (perhaps legitimately) believe are new medicines? After all if I can sell a "miracle cure" for arthritis which is composed of inert compounds, past history would indicate I can enjoy quite a bit of financial success before being found out. When discovered, I can claim that I believed that the drug was effective and I honestly thought I was helping and that no one was hurt by it. Even if my drug were shown to be a scam, its hard to see many people getting up the gumption or desire to sue me over some chalk pills. Multiply this small example by a million and you have quite a mess on your hands. In some ways this is what medicine looks like in the completely unregulated parts of the 3rd world: you have to be extremely careful that what you are taking is not fake ( http://www.10news.com/lifestyle/health/fake-drugs-not-just-third-world-problem02222013 ). I see a very deep belief in Objectivist circles that businesses will be rational but over and over the evidence is strongly to the contrary. When given a chance, there are many businesspeople who seek to make a quick buck at the expense of others and exit to a Caribbean island. In the world of finance, their victims can try to find them and sue them. In the case of medicine, their victims are often six feet underground by the time a medicine is shown to be a terrible mistake. Sometimes as in the case of Fen-Phen, people are partly to blame (the drug in question was an off-label miracle cure for obesity) but in others like Thalidomide, patients were totally blameless.

I understand that Objectivists see entities like the FDA holding up miracle cures and miring drug development in red-tape (as thus hurtine people) but I have to balance this with a view into the world before the FDA, when it was the Wild West out there and people would sell almost anything as a miracle cure ( http://www.nycbar.org/library/featured-exhibitions/patent-medicines-and-miracle-cures ). I would like to hear what Objectivists think here? Clearly some corrupt businesspeople, left to their own devices, not only fail to self-regulate but in some instances don't really mind killing off a few consumers to make a quick buck. In the case of selling you defective garbage bags, there's no worries: just buy someone else's garbage bags. Viva marketplace. Vote with your wallet. Let the best product survive. In the case of medicine it's not all that easy: you may end up dead or maimed and your grieving survivors may or may not be capable of a long legal process to redress the ill that has been caused.

How do Objectivists see this? I know that some Objectivists and even Ayn Rand like to hearken to a glorious time when Capitalism almost happened in the mid-1800s but for me, in the area of drugs & food there's little "good" about these "good old days". I'd love to hear how Objectivists see an uncompromising view of regulation (separation of economy and state) with the clear benefits such regulation has brought to the lives of so many? I know there's a bit of Bastiat's argument here: who's to say what amazing drugs would have been created had the FDA not existed but we need to balance this with a sense of history and ask how many more human lives would have been ended or cut short because of ineffective/dangerous medicines?

asked Jan 26 '14 at 12:05

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


My question is this: if government is not supposed to meddle with businesses, then is it pretty much OK that medicine companies use the public at large as guinea pigs for what they (perhaps legitimately) believe are new medicines?

As long as they're upfront and honest about it, I don't see why not. If they're not upfront and honest about it, that should be illegal, of course.

How exactly the laws should be set up to draw the line between two, is complicated. But it absolutely should be possible to sell unapproved drugs given adequate disclosure.

(Jan 26 '14 at 14:03) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In the case of medicine it's not all that easy: you may end up dead or maimed and your grieving survivors may or may not be capable of a long legal process to redress the ill that has been caused.

Sounds like homicide. You don't need the help of the victim's family to prosecute someone for murder or manslaughter.

(Jan 26 '14 at 14:05) anthony anthony's gravatar image

@anthony on "disclosure", who would enforce this stringent disclosure ? Isn't that a direct state interference in commerce? If there is no requirement to disclose, then as we have seen in real life, businesses often are not upfront and honest and caveat emptor!

As for the "homicide" issue. Sometimes this is clear: a patent medicine containing arsenic kills your kid. Then I agree, people would probably sue. What about a medicine that simply didn't work or was ineffective due to fakery? Lawsuits are complex and expensive. Corrupt businesses have long used this fact to intimidate victims.

(Jan 26 '14 at 14:17) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Regarding disclosure, I'm not sure what your question is. The executive branches of government would continue to enforce the law. As far as whether or not it constitutes a "direct state interference in commerce", I'm not sure what you're getting at. Commercial transactions are governed by laws. Are laws against fraud "direct state interference in commerce"? If so, then I guess this would be too. If not, then I guess this wouldn't be either.

As far as caveat emptor, that certainly applies to all transactions to some extent. Moreso with things that are sold as-is, though.

(Jan 27 '14 at 09:53) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As far as the homicide issue, surely someone who engaged in fakery (by which I assume you mean fraud, a misdemeanor if not a felony) which directly led to someone's death would be guilty of a criminal law (most likely misdemeanor-manslaughter but perhaps something even more serious). If not, I guess that needs to be changed.

What does intimidation of victims have to do with the ability of the state to prosecute someone for involuntary manslaughter or worse?

(Jan 27 '14 at 09:57) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In any case, I think we're getting way beyond Objectivism and into law. What I think Objectivism can and does say is that it absolutely should be possible to sell unapproved drugs given adequate disclosure. We should go back to the days when freedom to contract was recognized as a right.

If society could agree on that principle, I think we'd be a long way on the road toward proper laws.

It seems to me that you don't even agree with that, so there's really no sense in discussing where exactly the line should be drawn - especially not on this site as it's far beyond the scope of Objectivism.

(Jan 27 '14 at 10:12) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I am not sure whether I agree or disagree. I don't ask questions I know the answers to. I like the idea of freedom to contract. The enforcement of "adequate disclosure" is what I was asking about. How would you see that strictly enforced? Just saying it should exist is not enough. How do you make a drug company have to state, for example, "we are using turpentine as a purported cure for cancer in this drug, we really don't know if it works or not but please try it. And don't sue us, ever.". How do you do that without violating the separation of business and state?

(Jan 27 '14 at 10:26) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I used the term "adequate disclosure" intentionally to avoid answering the question of what is adequate. Answering that question is way beyond the scope of Objectivism. In fact, I wouldn't want to give an answer without first doing months of research. I can say that knowingly stocking poison on the shelf of a grocery store and calling it cough syrup is not adequate disclosure, but where exactly we should draw the line is not something I can say.

(Jan 27 '14 at 10:42) anthony anthony's gravatar image

How do you make a drug company have to state, for example, "we are using turpentine as a purported cure for cancer in this drug, we really don't know if it works or not but please try it. And don't sue us, ever.". How do you do that without violating the separation of business and state?

I don't see what it has to do with "the separation of business and state" at all. If I put turpentine in my iced tea and give it to my social house guests, and one of them dies as a result, that's a crime, right?

How do you make a homeowner have to state, "no, don't drink that, it's poison"?

(Jan 27 '14 at 10:46) anthony anthony's gravatar image

That said, I am aware that Rand at least once used the term "separation of state and economics", and I don't know exactly what she meant by it.

Maybe you should add to your question (or make a new one asking) what exactly Rand meant by "separation of state and economics" (or "separation of business and state", if you can find a quote where she used that term).

We know Rand supported laws against fraud. And selling turpentine as a cure for cancer, is fraud.

(Jan 27 '14 at 10:48) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If the term is actually "separation of state and economics" and not "separation of business and state", I think that correction helps put it in context. The government ought to be making laws to prevent people from killing each other, whether as part of a business or not. The government ought not be involved in making laws to try to boost the economy.

(Jan 27 '14 at 10:56) anthony anthony's gravatar image
showing 2 of 11 show all

The Objectivist view of government-controlled healthcare and/or government-controlled of medicines is well known and has been stated repeatedly, going all the way back to a brief statement by Dr. Hendricks in Atlas Shrugged, reprinted in FNI under the title, "The Forgotten Man of Socialized Medicine." Basically, such government control is pure altruism -- the view that the producers and providers exist to serve others, that the others have a claim on the producers' lives, and that the producers are to be sacrificed for the benefit of the consumers. Such control also violates the individual rights of the producers and providers, and of the many consumers who strive to be rational, to evaluate what the producers claim about the benefits of a particular therapy, to judge the reputability and rationality of the producers and providers, and to pay for the services rendered, if the consumers have the means to pay, as a great many do. Even more of them would have the financial means under full laissez-faire capitalism.

In accord with altruism, the question seems to assume that economic activity is owned by the society and exists only to be disposed of by the society as the "society" somehow determines to be expedient, for the benefit of the "consumers," especially the weaker, more irrational consumers who are deemed unable to judge anything for themselves and/or unable to pay for it. A society has no moral right to order producers and providers not to offer anything for sale without government permission, or to sell only at prices approved by the government, or to decree that consumers who are willing to judge and pay for services themselves shall not be allowed to do so.

For additional information for those who are interested, here are some illuminating references:

  • "The Forgotten Man of Socialized Medicine," reprinted in FNI, pp. 126-127 in the Signet paperback edition. Emphasizes the role of the doctors in providing medical care, and their individual rights.

  • Topic of "'Capitalism'" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. One excerpt, from VOS Chap. 1, explains:

When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

The next excerpt, from CUI Chap. 1, explains:

The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve “the common good.” It is true that capitalism does—if that catch-phrase has any meaning—but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.
  • Topic of "'Consumerism'" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. It asks, "Who Will Protect Us from Our Protectors," such as the FDA when the power of the FDA becomes corrupted in support of certain favored industries and providers, to the detriment of all others. It describes how government officials, over time, inevitably become more responsive to political pressures than to providing any real value to consumers.

  • "The Assault on Integrity," published in CUI, Chap. 9. This article was not written by Ayn Rand but was published by her under her editorial direction and endorsement. It explains the great value of reputation in a free market, and the process and challenge, over time, of gradually building a strong reputation for honesty and rationality in business dealings. Regarding thalidomide, this article mentions:

The guiding purpose of the government regulator is to prevent rather than to create something. He gets no credit if a new miraculous drug is discovered by drug company scientists; he does if he bans thalidomide. Such emphasis on the negative sets the framework under which even the most conscientious regulators must operate. The result is a growing body of restrictive legislation on drug experimentation, testing, and distribution. As in all research, it is impossible to add restrictions to the development of new drugs without simultaneously cutting off the secondary rewards of such research -- the improvement of existing drugs. Quality improvement and innovation are inseparable.

There is a further premise in the appeals to altruism and governmental abrogation of individual rights that warrants an additional response. Some observers who regard themselves as "weak" and/or "downtrodden" may openly seek government control of producers so that they, the weak and downtrodden, can be better off than their own productive effort, initiative and ability would enable in a fully free market. They may believe they are only seeking to raise themselves up to the level of the others, but it won't work. All they will accomplish is to drag everyone else down to their level (and probably lower, as the economy becomes progressively weaker). If they understand that and still want it anyway, they are acting on the motive of "hatred of the good for being good." They are pursuing a course of pure destruction in the name of "equality." In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has shown producers and rational consumers everywhere how to answer such destructiveness: "shrug," i.e., don't support their destroyers, especially stop granting them a moral sanction. What the economic equality seekers are doing is no moral ideal; it is the exact opposite.

answered Jan 27 '14 at 22:26

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Thanks for a great answer. One point to ponder is: why do people want the protection of a government ? Why do they clamor for regulation? Why do they lionize and idolize those that they feel have protected them? I believe Objectivists look at this solely from a logical perspective and neglect the emotional side of the issue. If one mother's baby dies due to Thalidomide, a million mothers are chilled and horrified. Rather than coldly see that the body count is a consequence of innovation attempts, they clamor for the safety of a parent who will protect them and their babies (cont...)

(Jan 28 '14 at 10:09) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

(cont..) you could argue that this is all immature and illogical but that's how people behave. Looked at rationally, all innovations will have problems. In the area of medicine, this means dead/maimed/uncured people. If you want progress, you deal with the problems. I think the other area is that of outright fraud. Medicine is rife with this since people are desperate for cures. I don't know what to do about the charlatans who seem to swarm around medicine. Other than mopping up after them, is there any practical way to decrease the incidence of crime and deception here?

(Jan 28 '14 at 10:15) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
Objectivists look at this solely from a logical perspective and neglect the emotional side of the issue.

Objectivism stands for full integration and harmony of reason and emotion, thought and action, theory and practice, mind and body. The rejection of reason in favor of appeals to emotion accomplishes nothing except to leave only brute physical force as one's means of dealing with others, since one can't reason with them. Initiation of physical force, whether by individuals or by government, creates nothing, produces nothing, solves no problems of health or prosperity or anything else. It leads only to destruction. It is only through reason that man (or an entire society) can survive.

(Jan 29 '14 at 00:59) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image
showing 2 of 3 show all

Follow this question

By Email:

Once you sign in you will be able to subscribe for any updates here



Answers and Comments

Share This Page:



Asked: Jan 26 '14 at 12:05

Seen: 1,182 times

Last updated: Jan 29 '14 at 00:59