Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Column on Taking Stock at Year's End

Taking Stock of America

Tibor R. Machan

It is a tradition to take stock at yearÂ?s end, so I am going to follow,
seeing it is useful to do this now and then. After a hectic year, with a
very nasty election campaign behind us, with a war that is utterly futile
and yet keeps raging along thousands of miles away, it may serve a purpose
to remind ourselves of what is really so great about AmericaÂ?or at least
its promise.

How can I do this without thinking of my own history which involved
coming to these shores from communist Hungary, after a brief stay in
Germany, way back in the 50s? The contrast back then was stark, at least
when one considers the ideas that defined the two societies.

Communists believed that government needed forcibly to prepare the
population for a revolutionary change, one that would remake human nature
from its individualist phase to a fully mature collectivist emancipation.
They thought the idea of individual liberty is a shallow bit of
self-delusion, one that can serve a mere temporary purpose of boosting the
economic power of a society. After that socialism would take over, with
government managing everything for some vague notion of the general good.
In time communism would arrive, in which everyone automatically work for a
common goal, the supposed public interest.

Such a one-size-fits-all vision is what the few genuine commies cooked
up, while opportunists, who made up the bulk, simply used this phony idea
to get control of society and oppress everyone for their own purposes,
ones that amounted to nothing more noble than those of the Mafia. In
contrast, what was associated with America, even if the reality fell far
short of it, had to do with the truly revolutionary idea that individual
human beings matter mostÂ?not society, not the tribe, not the ethnic group.

This notion, that you, I, they, everyone in fact, matters most, not
collectively but individually, was the main message of the American
Founders when they so enthusiastically affirmed the discovery that every
individual person has unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness. Those rights, and what followed from them, would become, in
a just society, legally protected obstacles to all who would attempt to
rule other peopleÂ?s lives. They would, if properly heeded and firmly
secured, serve as the inviolable borders around every human beingÂ?s life
so that it is he or she who governs that life, not others with the sorry
excuse that they are being helpful and mean to do good for those they
undertake to boss about.

There is no other contrast that is more stark in the history of political
thought than that between those who want to rule others, with a myriad of
excuses that at times sound tempting, and those who would unwaveringly
acknowledge everyoneÂ?s fundamental sovereignty. Even when we find some
folks who lack the full capacity to be sovereign, they would gain support
from volunteers, not from political bosses who would invariably abuse the
power over the helpless so as to impose their idea of how everyone ought
to live.

In this American vision of societyÂ?the one most folks identify with this
country as being unique to it (for America also involves lots of bad
habits from the Old World)Â?the legal authorities have one primary job,
namely, to secure our rights. Like referees at a game, they are to stick
only to that job and whatÂ?s needed to do it right, but not venture out on
various missions of power venting.

This idea is the special contribution of America to the history of world
politics, and some of it could even be experienced here and there, used to
actually set people free. Even African Americans, who at first didnÂ?t
benefit much from these notions, eventually found their liberty affirmed
specifically because of what the FounderÂ?s made clear in the Declaration
of Independence: No one is to rule another, not for good or for ill,
without that otherÂ?s consent.

This idea has always been true but for too long tragically suppressed by
the monsters and petty tyrants who loved running roughshod over the rest
of us. And today the idea is once again becoming neglected.

In our recent presidential campaign the idea that people ought to be free
to run their own lives, for better or for worse, however fortunate or
unfortunate they may be, gained hardly any airing. Even President George
W. BushÂ?s invocation of the concept of the Â?ownership societyÂ? amounted to
little more than empty rhetoric.

Such is the sad state of affairs at the end of 2004 and beginning of
2005. Perhaps with a few more thousand outspoken citizens making it
abundantly clear that it is indeed American individualism that requires
vigilant defense, the revolutionary vision of the American founders could
be rekindled. It certainly deserves to be.

Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He is
research fellow at the Hoover Institution and advises Freedom
Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues. His most recent book is
Objectivity (Ashgate, 2004).

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Column on FDA Myths

Mythmaking about the FDA

Tibor R. Machan

Merrill Goozner is the director of the Integrity in Science project at
the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Ralph Nader inspired
organization guided by, among others, the legendary Michael Jacobson who
has been the driving force of this group from its inception. Along with
other organizations, such as the Public CitizenÂ?s Health Research Group
and its main man, Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, CSPI is in the business of
encouraging our government to live up to this wonderful insight by H. L.
Mencken: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace
alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an
endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary" (Minority Report,
[Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1997]).

In his recent Op Ed essay for The New York Times (December 21, 2004),
Goozner advances some of the classic myths about government. First, he
tells us, Â?To make rational choices, doctors and consumers need the F.D.A.
and other agencies to be independent arbiters of not just the safety and
efficacy of new drugs and devices, but of their relative medical
usefulness and economic viability.Â? He continues his myth-perpetuation by
announcing that Â?the medical oversight system needs a new ethicÂ?one that
scrupulously adheres to a standard that says its studies and decisions
have been made entirely free of commercial bias and conflicts of interest.Â?

No sooner does our true believer in the power of government to solve all
our pharmacological problems, he does give a hint as to why it is all the
dream: Â?Sadly, that is very far from the situation today. Drug and device
companies sponsor most clinical trials; F.D.A. advisory panels are larded
with scientists tied to private companies; corporate user fees help
finance the F.D.A. that is conducting reviews; doctors get most of their
medical information either from sales representatives of drug companies or
corporate-sponsored continuing medical education; and the companies are
given primary responsibility for post-marketing safety surveillance of
their own products.Â?

Goozner mentions these obstacles to the possibility of impartiality and
objectivity of government policy making as if they were something only in
place �today.� And thus he charges ahead enthusiastically with the naïve
notion that Â?To break these ties, there needs to be an independent arm of
F.D.A. that contracts with independent clinicians and scientists for the
final testing of all new drugs and medical devices.Â? He proposes that
Â?After a company submits its drug application based on safety and early
efficacy trials, this arm would design the protocols to learn not just if
the new drug is effective versus a placebo, but how it compares to other
therapies and how it can be most effectively used. At the same time, the
F.D.A. agency would need an adequately financed post-marketing system that
would follow through on a drug's safety, using information and financing
independent of the drug manufacturers.Â?

These are all pseudo-noble notions and while they fall way short of
justifying what the F.D.A. is supposed to be doing at its idealistic best,
there is an omission in GooznerÂ?s discussion that amounts to out and out
malpractice: He fails to discuss either the very famous argument of
economist Sam Peltzman, of the University of Chicago, concerning the drug
lag problem or the Nobel Prize winning idea of Professor James M. Buchanan
of George Mason University called Â?public choice theory.Â?

Anyone who still has the temerity to propose that government is the
solution to problems associated with drug manufacturing and marketing has
the moral and professional obligation to discuss these two basic
objections to such an idea. The drug lag argument shows that even
following the intentions of the legislators who created the Food and Drug
Administration, the results are going to be disastrous. Yes, one can
always call up such rare victories as the banning of thalidomide (though
even this one is no slam dunk when the details are considered). But as
Aristotle taught us some 2600 years ago, Â?one swallow does not a summer

In fact, the F.D.A.Â?s policies produce even greater health hazards than
anyone could imagine it averting. The reason is pretty simple: By
insisting on certain types of tests for drugs that are being slated for
manufactureÂ?routinely requiring the impossible of proving a negative (Â?No
one will be put at risk from this drugÂ?)Â?Americans are often prevented
from gaining access to very effective means to fend off life threatening
diseases. The country thus lags behind many others and only those rich
enough to visit these others are able to overcome this obstacle to their
likely medical recoveries.

The merits of this argument are, of course, in the details. Yet it has
gained considerable credibility over the last five or so decades and
anyone who promotes greater powers for the F.D.A. needs to discuss it. The
same holds for BuchananÂ?s theory of public choice, one he developed with
Gordon Tullock in their book, The Calculus of Consent (University of
Michigan Press, 1962). In 1985 Buchanan received the Nobel Prize in
economics for this work and anyone who is proposing that outfits such as
the F.D.A. can escape the inherent problem of bias would have to address
his work.

Contrary to the suggestion by all those who propose to solve problems via
governmentÂ?namely, that all we really need is better people and more
stringent rulesÂ?public choice theorists argues that inherent in the
process of government regulation we invariably find the triumph of vested
interest. Bureaucrats, including the most honorable scientists who might
be hired to work in government agencies, are inclined to bolster their own
special purposes and goalsÂ?some call this their Â?selfish interestsÂ?Â?and
the way the welfare state works there simply is no way to curtail any of
this. The dynamics of the nearly unbound democratic system are such that
government must respond to those in the constituency who exert the most
clout. This is the most natural way of its operation. So it is sheer
fantasy to hope that new people or rules will manage to circumvent it all.

But, instead of at least hinting at such problems with his proposal, Mr.
Goozner charges ahead zealously, failing to raise any of the well
established skeptical concerns with what he wishes for, holding out the
myth of government regulators as Â?independent arbiters.Â?

Never mind that even at it most ideal conception, government regulation
is a violation of due process because it intrudes on peopleÂ?s lives,
imposing major burdens on those who have not hurt anyone at allÂ?a form of
impermissible prior restraint in a free country. Even the utilitarian
consideration that F.D.A. type operations have innate flaws fails to
receive acknowledgment in Mr. GooznerÂ?s proselytizing.

To return to an old theme of mine, isnÂ?t it interesting that when
journalists and pundits peddle their deadly wares, there is no requirement
for warning labels!

Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He is
research fellow at the Hoover Institution and advises Freedom
Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues. His most recent book is
Objectivity (Ashgate, 2004).

Monday, December 20, 2004

Column on the Cost of Risk-taking

Footing the Bill for Risk Takers

Tibor R. Machan

Waiting for the feature film to come on the screen, I sat through
innumerable ads. (These days one no longer can go to the movies to get
away from them and then one must also payÂ?so I rarely go.) One of these
featured a surfer who proudly announced that heÂ?s broken his foot several
times, as well as injuring his knees and his back. He seemed rather
pleased with himself for all this, smiling as he made his confession.

Or at least is should have been a confession. For years from now, when he
will be old, he will have innumerable medical problems as a result of all
this risky play. My own mother, who was a vigorous athlete from age
14thÂ?she fenced and swam and skiedÂ?now, at 85, is feeling pain in her
lower extremities and frankly blames it on her early athletic prowess (and
on my father, another fanatic, who forced her into much of thisÂ?he was her
coach from age 14 on).

But, of course, in the wonderful welfare state in which we live there is
nothing much to regret. Not only will everyone be taken care of by various
state and federal "insurance" programsÂ?all of them coercive wealth
redistribution schemes without any means testingÂ?but perhaps by then all
the sports equipment manufacturers and athletic clubs, maybe even
university athletic departmentsÂ?will be ripe for massive law suits by the
government to pay up for all the ailing old folks who will need to be
taken care of. (This will be required, given that the state coffers will
soon be bankrupt from all this Â?freeÂ? medical service everyone has a
Â?basic rightÂ? to.)

This is indeed the consequence of collectivismÂ?we are all in the same
boat, whether or not we individually chose to be in it. If you do not
engage in risky behavior and thus spare yourself from injury and later
innumerable trips to the doctor, it is almost irrelevant. Funds will still
be extorted from you so as to take care of the ailments of your fellows.

The precedent for this is set in law and public policy now. People who
smoked for decadesÂ?with the warning labels starting them in the face and
the news about tobacco being bad for you all around (I knew it back in
Hungary in the 1950s)Â?could not only win huge legal judgments in their or
their kinÂ?s favor but their medical costs, covered by the states, were
used as grounds for bilking the tobacco firms out of billions of dollars.
Now the targets are the various food producers, who are allegedly making
us all fat and causing all the medical expenses related to obesity. And
the gun manufacturers are constantly fending off the lawyers these daysÂ?in
TV dramas and at the movies they are losing the legal battles more and
more frequently.

Reality is sure to follow soon, given the incredible legal-cultural
climate in which individual responsibility is dead, except when it comes
to corporate executives who are, of course, responsible for every bad
thing, including inclement weather and huge icebergs blocking penguins
from their food. (I will never understand how the major media never, ever
focus on this rank inconsistencyÂ?we are all victims, but people in
business never are. Maybe they were brainwashed at the Harvard Business

Alas, asking for coherence or consistency in these matters is probably
futile, what with so many vested interests lined up to get in on the game.
Sometimes I wonder what if the people who ran the Auschwitz or Dachau
death camps had themselves some competent lobbyists they might have kept
their jobs since, well, they had a right to job security, didnÂ?t they?
Sure, their Â?public serviceÂ? was so transparently vicious to the rest of
humanity that this wouldnÂ?t have worked well, but with the lesser evils
done by our bureaucrats, they can insist that aiding along the petty
tyrannies of the welfare state should never be interrupted.

Anyway, I just wish the folks who make a mess of their livesÂ?and if I do,
that should include meÂ?wouldnÂ?t get the chance to dump the cost of it all
on the rest of us.