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Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?

Apparently, at the New York Times, the answer is no. Elisabeth Rosenthal, who is a very insightful writer on health care issues, had a column this morning warning that we may face very high prices for a coronavirus vaccine. She points out that this is in spite of the fact that the government is paying for much of the cost of the research. Rosenthal then argues we should adopt a system of price controls or negotiations, as is done in every other wealthy country.

While her points are all well-taken, the amazing part is that she never considers the simplest solution, just don’t give the companies patent monopolies in the first place. The story here is the government is paying for most of the research upfront. While it has to pay for it a second time by giving the companies patent monopolies.

There is no reason that the government can’t simply make it a condition of the funding that all research findings are fully open and that any patents will be in the public domain so that any vaccines will be available as a cheap generic from the day it comes on the market. Not only does this ensure that a vaccine will be affordable, it will likely mean more rapid progress since all researchers will be able to immediately learn from the success or failures of other researchers.

It is amazing that this obvious route is not being considered in public debate. Government-granted patent and copyright monopolies are one of the main ways in which we generate inequality. Bill Gates would still be working for a living without them.

At a time when the country is newly focused on racial inequality, it is striking that reducing the importance of the factors that generate inequality in the first place is not even up for discussion. This is fitting with the good old “White Savior” theory of politics.

Rather than changing the government-created structures that generate inequality, they would rather have the beneficent government push policies that reverse some of the inequality government structures created in the first place. I suppose this route is more appealing to the liberal psyche, but it ignores economic reality, and also at the end of the day, is likely to be less effective politically.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

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