Bureaucracies, genomes & vaccines (was: Sex drives...)

Robert J. Bradbury (bradbury@aeiveos.com)
Mon, 5 Jul 1999 13:46 PDT

> Bureaucracies virtually never produce anything useful.

How wrong you are 'o libertarian one! :-)

I will simply cite the history of the human genome project. When the HGP was started (circa 1985), nobody thought it was possible. So picking a number out of a hat, they picked 2005 as a reasonable completion date.

For about 5 years nothing happened because the technology did not exist to do it. In the early 1990's they decided that substantial progress needed to be made in the underlying technologies, so NIH funded a series of development projects. That lead to 3-5 labs developing the basic improvements and prototypes of the capillary sequencing apparatus that are now being sold by Molecular Dynamics and Perkin Elmer/ Applied Biosystems. [A clear case of government funded technologies migrating to industrial production.]

When it became clear (after ~5-7 years of R&D), what the capacities of the machines were, the government revised its completion target date to 2003.

Perkin Elmer decided that its machines could provide an interesting business oportunity to get into the health care business (a growth industry) and together with Craig Venter (from Human Genome Sciences & The Institute for Genomic Research -- the people who sequenced the first bacterial genomes), founded Celera and said that they would sequence the genome by 2001.

The government "bureaucracy", non-plused by such brashness (and the concern that a private company might patent key portions of the human genome), accelerated its time table, and has issued contracts to the most productive labs currently in operation to get 90% of the genome done by next year!

So, what was to have been a ~20 year, $2-3 billion dollar project is coming in ahead of schedule and under budget.

I will allow that industry competition has helped the schedule along, but it took some highly motivated and visionary individuals (Dr. Watson being a key player) saying something is possible and desirable, convincing the government "bureaucracy" to make a long term commitment to a project whose feasibility and results were substantially doubtable to produce a result which will be critical for your long term health and well-being!

Government bureaucracies *do work*, in situations where the economic justifications for projects cannot be made in industry (who have to watch the bottom line). Given that situation, you have to allow for a higher failure rate among the things that government bureaucracies attempt. This is why the congressional criticisms of "stupid" or "failed" projects can be counterproductive in the long term. If it were an "assured success" a business would have done it before the government even thought about doing it.

I would add that much of the Web as we know it today would not exist (or would have been significantly delayed), if DARPA (a government agency) hadn't funded the development of the TCP/IP protocols back in the '60s. We also probably wouldn't have the fast computers as fast as those currently on your desk have if NASA hadn't pushed for miniaturization and integrated circuits in the race to the moon.

We certainly wouldn't have solar cells, that if prices continue to decline, you should be able to install in for your own home power system within 10 years, freeing yourself from the local electrical monopoly, if the government had not for may years funded their R&D.

Yes, 'o Libertarian-Wan, governments & bureaucracies are universally bad...

The solution to the DMV problem is to introduce competition. [I assume that brothels will be in competition with each other so they would never end up looking like the DMV. :-)]

Now, switching tracks entirely, industry and/or competition is not a universal good!

In a highly competitive environment, you cannot make the investments necessary for long term R&D projects. You *also* generally *do not* undertake projects that will result in the elimination of your market. What Razor/razor blade manufacturing company would undertake a project for research into creams that permanently prevent hair growth? Only if a competitor appears to be on the verge of developing such a breakthrough would a company be forced to pursue this type of development. I've seen some interesting documentaries on PBS about how GM methodically went about buying up and shutting down public transportation systems to increase the market for automobiles. A collective of companies will act in their own self-interest to promote the sales of their products. You will not see GM/Ford/Crysler act in a way to promote bicycles (or mass-transit)!

A case in point would be the pharmaceutical industry and vaccines. What pharmaceutical company is going to develop a one-time vaccine, when they could instead devote their resources to a multiple-use drug? Most vaccines have been developed either by government "bureaucracies" or by contracts that the government made with industry or by non-profit organizations.

On the other hand, I suspect you as a consumer would generally prefer a one-time polio shot as an infant to many years spent in an iron-lung that used to be sold on a per-patient basis!

An industry will not generally act in a way so as to eliminate its markets, on the other hand a government can act in the collective interest of its citizens.

The fundamental question then becomes what are these "collective interests"?!?

> (preserving wetlands and endangered species, for example),

Aha, well here we come to the crux of the problem.

As a home buyer with an interest in affordable housing, you would like to see land inexpensively developed. As a contractor intested in profits, you would prefer to have more land available and fewer environmental regulations to wrestle with. However either individual, as a parent, might wish to share some of the natural beauty of the planet either themselves or with their children without having to drive 500 miles (804.5 km) to find some!

> they immediately use that power to stomp on the rights of individuals.

So, do these rights of "indviduals" include the right to develop where-ever/when-ever they see fit and therefore impose consequences on the population/planet that *other* individuals have not explicitly agreed to?

What fraction of people doing *anything* consciously thinks about "to what degree by my doing xxxxxxxxx am I stealing (taking without reimbursing) from the common (generally available, not easily subject to cost accounting) resource base?

> I am loathe to give them any more power than they have, especially
> without far more convincing proof that overpopulation is a problem.

"Overpopulation" is not a problem. "Popluation" relative to available resources and or "population impact" on the environment *is* a problem. It has been a problem for perhaps 50,000 years! About 2500 yeras ago Turkey was a nicely forrested country, today it is not. The reason (according to my understanding) is that most of the trees were cut down to build the ships used in the Turkish-Greek wars in ancient times. Going back further, a recent article I read attributes most of the extinction of larger land mammals in Europe, North America, and especially Australia to the arrival of man.

We do not tread lightly on the planet. Whether other species do is open to question (comments????). Of course, since other species are presumably "unconscious" of their "treading", they can/should not be held responsible for it. We on the other hand do not have that luxury.

If you have a libertarian philosophy/perspective, please present a reasonable argument that you should be allowed an unregulated "free hand" to "modify" our collective environment.