Over at TheAtlantic.com, David A. Shaywitz has a thoughtful essay called “Getting to the Right Relationship Between Doctors and Drug Companies.” Shaywitz, a medical doctor with a Ph.D. to boot, works for a biopharmaceutical company and has a healthy appreciation for the value of collaboration between doctors and drug companies.
Shaywitz opposes the growing movement to demonize, and eventually end, the consulting relationships through which doctors help pharmaceutical companies develop and market new drugs. After noting how hard it is to find commercially feasible ideas, Shaywitz writes:
To advance even a solid idea requires, ideally, close communication between industry and outside experts: university researchers, who often developed the science and understand it the best; practicing clinicians, who can describe where the medical needs are the greatest, and what properties an ideal therapeutic would have; and patients, of course, who understand better than anyone else what they need, and where existing approaches may fall short.
We should strive to cultivate, not demonize, these sorts of interactions.
This is just a taste of Shaywitz’s solid, fact-rich argument in favor of preserving such collaboration against a rising tide of attacks. Unfortunately, Shaywitz’s argument falters when he attempts a moral defense of drug companies’ profit-seeking.
Shaywitz, an adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, takes an approach similar to that favored by AEI’s president, Arthur Brooks. (My colleague Don Watkins has analyzed Brooks’ weaknesses here, here, here and here.) In essence, Shaywitz asserts that drug company profits should be tolerated because they allow companies to serve other people’s needs. In support he quotes Whole Foods CEO John Mackey: “Making high profits is the means to the end of fulfilling Whole Foods’ core business mission. We want to improve the health and well-being of everyone on the planet though higher quality food and better nutrition, and we can’t fulfill this mission unless we are highly profitable.”
This kind of argument amounts to: “Please excuse our profits—we’re really out to benefit others, not ourselves.” No matter how often conservatives resort to this strategy, it will always ring false because it concedes the impropriety of profit-seeking while simultaneously attempting to excuse it. Such arguments are worse than useless in the current controversy, because the anti-collaboration movement succeeds by decrying the profit motive as a source of corruption and conflicts of interest.
In reason, however, the progenitors of progress in medicine—especially the scientists, physicians, engineers, and executives who work in and for pharmaceutical companies—have no need to apologize or justify themselves altruistically. What’s urgently needed here is a defense based on rights—the moral right of doctors and drug companies to work together to advance their own productive interests, and their legal right to do so without interference from government regulators.