Capitalism and the Public Good

There was a recent story that illustrates one of the many problems of the hard-right free-market capitalism strategies espoused not only by Thomas Friedman but seemingly the conventional wisdom of everyday Americans. Even in an era where the Gulf Oil spill, a direct result of these policies, is having genocidal effects on sea life, people still cling to the notion that the American capitalist society is best.

I don’t necessarily want to argue (at this moment) that it isn’t. In fact, let’s say all the things defenders of capitalism say about it are true. It stimulates innovation; it creates prosperity; it evens the playing field so that any person can succeed on their own terms and become rich if only they work hard enough. These things are not true, of course, (or rather they are true in a very limited sense) but let’s assume they are for a moment. Even given this, a totally unregulated capitalism (which is what free-marketeers and, incidentally, libertarians such as Ron Paul promote) has destructive effects on our society.

The story I want to discuss concerns the increasing lack of antivenom to certain types of poisonous snakes. What has happened is that the general lack of snakebites, and poisonous snakebites in particular, has made it unprofitable to produce antivenom:

Unfortunately, after Oct. 31 of this year, there may be no commercially available antivenom (antivenin) left. That’s the expiration date on existing vials of Micrurus fulvius, the only antivenom approved by the Food and Drug Administration for coral snake bites. Produced by Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer, the antivenom was approved for sale in 1967, in a time of less stringent regulation.

Wyeth kept up production of coral snake antivenom for almost 40 years. But given the rarity of coral snake bites, it was hardly a profit center, and the company shut down the factory that made the antivenom in 2003. Wyeth worked with the FDA to produce a five-year supply of the medicine to provide a stopgap while other options were pursued. After that period, the FDA extended the expiration date on existing stock from 2008 to 2009, and then again from 2009 to 2010. But as of press time, no new manufacturer has stepped forward.

In theory, goods and services are produced to meet the demands of society, creating a situation which benefits both the producer and the consumer. The consumer benefits from the goods and services and the producer generates a profit for him or herself. Simple enough. However, the key word in all of this is profit.

Capitalism is to human organization as Nietzsche’s ubermensch is to humanity itself.  In other words, the pursuit of profit divorced from other concerns trumps social values, and indeed it creates social values. For any business model to work, it must operate based on the desires of others. Those desires tend to be generated by the businesses themselves. Do we need cheese puffs? Do we need Disney television programs? Do we need nuclear weapons? No, but we can have as much of those things as we want, because those things are associated with profit.

It is not inherently profitable to promote human community. Businesses do not benefit from people giving their labor to others for their benefit, or sharing vehicles, or giving clothes away when they no longer fit, or any of a million other human behaviors that do not involve production.

The end result is a situation where people may die of a snake bite because it isn’t cost-efficient to make antivenom.

Obviously, there are other social effects as well. People now take it for granted that of course businesses have a right to monitor, for example, one’s messages on the internet even on private time. It could affect their business, which is what’s really important, not the rights of the individual. That is explicitly a capitalist meme. It is the thought process of the employee. And it infects all similar discussions like this, because people have gotten so used to thinking this way that it becomes a reflex.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way, as Superman (the ubermensch) likes to say.

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