Government as Enabler

Governments large enough to interfere in any aspect of life produce this effect: any comparatively small group can leverage its resources through government (by buying politicians or legislation, by steering tax dollars or fiat government funds) to produce a far greater effect that its members would otherwise be capable of. We see this happening for progress in medical research on a constant, ongoing basis; it is hampered and slowed by the actions of successful influence groups who oppose technological progress, either deliberately (no embryonic stem cell research or therapeutic cloning) or incidentally (let's run everything by centralized control). On the other side of the coin, you can see the same process going on for pro-research groups. Both sides waste resources profligately on steering notoriously inefficient government efforts rather than getting things accomplished themselves - it becomes an arms race, a race to the bottom in wasting donated resources to fight over taxed or fiat resources, rather than simply utilitizing donated resources directly. The lesson you should take away from a recent Virginia Postrel article on opposition to progress has nothing to do with right or left, corporations or activists, despite her framing of the issue:

You can't say the same for the antibiotech left. In liberal Canada, in fact, the law defines cloning expansively. Future procedures that might avoid religious objections would still be illegal. The goal is to stop certain research altogether.

That may sound strange to Americans. To many liberal Democrats reproductive choice and scientific progress are touchstone values. But they aren't the only values on the activist left. For many environmentalists, most famously Bill McKibben and Jeremy Rifkin, tampering with genetic nature is inherently wrong. How you do it is a minor detail.

Some feminists object to egg donation, paid or unpaid, for research or conception. "It presupposes an instrumental attitude toward one's own body and that of others" and begins to impose a "social obligation on the female body," notes German feminist Ingrid Schneider.

Genetic research also offends egalitarians. They fear that the rich will benefit first or that money for research will come from social programs. Social justice, argues Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics & Society in Oakland, Calif., "means not just 'no designer babies,' but also 'no designer medicine.'"

These intellectual influences are stronger in Europe (and Canada) than in the U.S. But two equally threatening ideas do crop up frequently among mainstream Democrats: that commerce taints medicine (those evil drug companies!) and that any activity that has social consequences ought to be centrally regulated.

The real problem is not that some people dislike progress and are willing to try and convert or impose upon others - there will always be people like that. In a free world, they would be able to buy their own land and live as they like, and their influence would only scale by their numbers. Rather, the problem is that leverage of the enormous, unaccountable resources of modern governments a) allow otherwise marginalized anti-research, anti-progress groups to greatly damage our prospects for health and longevity and b) drag pro-research groups into what is ultimately a wasteful, less efficient employment of resources. The problem isn't people, it's the concentration of power.

It is precisely this concentration of power - and the political battles that come with it - that compels patient advocates, supporters of regenerative medicine, healthy life extension research and other proponents of freedom in medical science to generate widespread public support for their common cause. Widespread support has other merits and benefits, but it is a needed defense in a world in which your efforts can be greatly harmed by an errant, misdirected government.

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I agree, political infighting is an incredibly wasteful expenditure of time and money.

One alternative that's worth examining is focusing our efforts on finding favourable governments, who can provide either funding, or provide a favourable legislative environment, where we could continue our efforts with few hurdles. Perhaps nations in the East, where they take a far more open attitude towards biotech... rather than here in the West where opposition is fed by religious dogma on the right, and the suicidal and failed ideals of socialism on the left.

If we move more and more of our research and assets to those nations that favour us, over time they'll benefit directly from gaining and using advanced technologies. Imagine countries that could do away with the need for healthcare. Whether healthcare is provided privately or publicly, the cost or tax savings found in those nations would be overwhelming; they would be able to exert supreme absolute advantage economically over countries that oppose freedom of science.

So great would their advantages be that those nations that opposed us would be in for a rude awakening. Their poor citizens, long denied the right to improve themselves, would flee or demand action. Thus by example, we would demonstrate clearly the advantages and desirability of biotech freedom. Those who opposed us would look foolish, or cruel, or both.

Posted by: Michael Yamashita at October 4th, 2005 12:41 AM
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