I listen to a lot of podcasts, most of them about skepticism, humanism, science fiction, writing, grammar, literature…and there’s one I listen to called “Sex Is Fun.” It’s an educational show that focuses on sex-positive health issues, issues of sexual identity, lifestyles, concerns and dysfunction, product reviews, sexual politics, as well as being fun and entertaining.
(If you’re giggling, judging, or shocked, get over it. Sex is a part of life, part of being human, and I think the American neurosis of making sex a taboo and fringe topic is part of what’s lead our culture to be schizophrenically obsessed by and sheltered from it, with some of the highest rates of rape and child molestation and harassment of any modern country.)
OK, to the point of this blog entry…
I’m using this podcast as an illustration of why I disagree with the economic libertarianism, true laissez-faire objectivismist philosophy is unworkable and morally bankrupt.
A year or so ago in the SiF podcast, the hosts discussed those herbal “performance enhancers” that are supposed to increase libido and “male performance.”
(One of the problems right there with deregulation: While over-the-counter medicine is stringently regulated by the FDA, “herbal supplements” are not regulated at all! You can walk into you local Walgreen’s or grocery store, pick up some herbal supplements, homeopathic remedies, and have absolutely no idea of what’s in them and what it does. They could do absolutely nothing, or they could have undocumented side-effects, they could have effects with other medications no one has tested for, and every unregulated capsule can have radically different potencies from capsule to capsule.)
And after trying several that are on the market, (another problem of lack of regulation: You have to be your own guinea pig or trust the reviews of some other guinea pig who may have completely shoddy or non-existent experimental controls, methodology, and data review procedures,) the main host and his co-hosts came to the conclusion that they’re all useless and ineffective. (Herbal supplements don’t have to prove any kind of efficacy to be put on the shelf. They can’t make any specific claims about curing any diseases or illnesses, but other than that, they can say whatever they want and leave it to the buyer to beware regarding supplements with untried and unproven pharmacology (no matter what the Indian shaman says about saw palmeto).)
Except one. There was one enhancement supplement which actually did work! Miracle! Ah, except, it was later found out that the manufacturer was putting in the same chemical that is used in Viagra and was taken off the market.
Now, I’m actually only through phase one of this story, there’s a part two coming. But let me stop to say this is the point in which your market libertarian will jump and exclaim: “Ah ha! See, the market adjusts! Let the free market work and it will adjust. People who do underhanded things will not be able to sell their wares and people will move on to the competition.”
Let’s keep in mind that this example of the unregulated and free market allows some someone to do what they want until they get called on. The manufacturer of this product may get sued, may have a settlement to pay, may even have criminal charges filed (which is only possible in a NON-truly libertarian society, by the way)–but all of it after the damage is done. Libertarians love to use the argument when fighting for gun ownership rights that the police don’t prevent crime, they come in after the crime has already happened to take names and investigate it (actually, this is an argument I myself believe in)–but market libertarians are blind to the fact that their disgust for why police are ineffective is exactly the same reason why market libertarianism, objectivism, is ineffective at anything except encouraging abuse, corruption, greed, people taking as much advantage of other people as possible and doing everything and anything possible to get away with it.
And they will too, for a long time, without regulation and stringent monitoring. How long do you think this supplement company got away with it? How many people possibly took the supplement before someone checked things out? How many people may have encounter heart or vision problems before someone decided to try making a connection with this supplement and pay for a chemical analysis of it? Could have been a day, could have been years. And that’s the nature of the market. It adjusts only after damage is done, and that damage could be great and widespread before someone does anything about it. And by then, the perpetrator could be long gone.
Now for part two. So that enhancement supplement is taken off the shelves, people know about it, they move on to the competition. The SiF podcast hosts come upon another enhancement supplement called “Boom Energy.” They check it out, actually talk to the manufacturer and distributor, and are convinced this supplement is “all natural.” The distributor is quite aware of the other, nefarious product, and assures the hosts and the audience that they’re on the up-and-up. And the product works. Even three out of the four female co-hosts report some marked amount of increase in libido and positive physical changes. Boom ends up sponsoring the podcast for nearly a year.
Then guess what. Yep, you guessed it–Boom is outted as also including low dosage of the Viagra active ingredient in their product.
So, how well did the market react and adjust? Just as one company is shut down for its practices, another one well aware of it and the results, does the same thing. Why? Because the drive of the profit motive is too high for people who care more about money than service or ethics. And the deregulated, open market fosters and encourages that kind of corporate sociopathy. In a deregulated industry, what incentive does the unscrupulous company (it’s owners, operators, R&D, etc) have to not put out a shoddy or potentially harmful product if they know the only thing that’s going to stop them is if finally enough people are hurt by it that a connection is made and a privately funded investigation is opened, when you plan on having made enough money by that time to skip off to the Camen Islands?
And that time is shorter only if there’s potential and significant harm (imagine a world in which over the counters weren’t regulated, and you could and would be expected to buy your heart medication, diabetes medication, anti-psychotics, AIDS inhibitors, liver disease treatment drugs off the shelf from companies that have nothing to hold them accountable to quality control safety and efficacy except possible eventual lawsuits?!) When a company puts out a completely ineffectual product, cognitive biases, placebo effect, confirmation biases, permit that product to sell and make ridiculous despite their ineffectualness. Even private clinical research can’t stop a company from putting out a worthless product and taking advantage of people who because of the nature of the product, can only assume it’s on the shelf because it works. We don’t even have to live in “that world,” it’s all around us right now! Test after test after test have shown the ingredients in Airborne do absolutely nothing to stop or even shorten a cold, homeopathic remedies are water, many herbs do not do what they’re advertised to do (although they may cause unresearched side-effects and drug reactions), and yet our store shelves are filled with it.
The market libertarian assumes that the average consumer will take the time and effort to research every product and company they chose to buy from. Think about it: Do you have time enough to do what you try to do already–work, family, friends, a life and pursuit of happiness, that you have time to research every product you buy from shampoo to peanut butter, to make sure independent laboratory tests (assuming any have even been done, have been published, and been done by someone not paid by the company itself!) show the product to be safe and contain what it’s advertised, and show a consistently better-than-placebo level of efficacy? (Yes, I suppose that may apply to products like shampoo as well *grin*.)
Our level of trust in aspects of the government is pretty low for many reasons. I myself trust the government far less than the average person. But even slightly flawed programs like the FDA, Medicare, the pre-Bush Veteran’s Administration, pre-Reagan banking regulation and housing finance regulations, worked well enough to help protect us to a degree far higher than if they didn’t exist and it was a consumer wild west out there. The neo-cons want to destroy the government and replace it with corporate rule, the objectivists want to destroy government and replace it with a utopian idea of free market rule (that somehow can magically withstand the machinacions and control that could be leveraged by mega-corporations). The problem isn’t necessarily government, it’s government that’s for sale that’s the problem. And that’s been the case for 100 years now, since Presidents Harding and Hoover and the robber barons who literally bought laws to protect their corporate interests at the expense of both labor and the consumer. And it took a giant step forward with Reagan and the Bush’s (and with Clinton as well, lest he’s put on some pedestal. He wasn’t as bad at handing government over to the wealthy and the corporate as Reagan, but he’s not innocent of it either. And neither will Hilary.)
Whether we can return to a truly representative democratic government that’s for and by the people, I don’t know. Instead of the corporate media controlled charade we have now, where each candidate (except a couple who have less than no chance of getting a nomination) is different from the other in only degrees. The power of global market capitalism may be too powerful and the handing over of America to the wealthy elite too far advanced. Some anarcho-socialists believe nothing short of revolution, complete market collapse, or massive environmental disaster of continent-size scale can wrest control of government back into the hands of the people.
One can only hope.