Friday, June 04, 2004

We Get Letters

A couple of days ago I posted about Abbott Pharmaceuticals jacking up the price of one of its HIV drugs. (Damn it, my permalinks seem to be bloggered. That link may or may not work for you - if not, well, the post is dated the first of June.) Someone wrote me to argue that there's no point in complaining, because in our current system corporations are bound to maximize their own profits:
If you want the profit motive involved in getting funding, spending money on research, etc., I can't see how you'd get away from having it involved in pricing the product when it's out there. I don't really see why it matters how much profit Abbot made on the drug, or on all its drugs for the year, or for the last fifty years. If they're allowed to act in their own financial interests, they get to raise prices on drugs for which there's more demand, whether that makes their profits reasonable, pitifully bad, or amazingly good. Similarly, I don't see why it matters whether the state programs that buy those drugs are flush with cash or about to go broke.

I don't see any likely way to get the same level of innovation we get now without some kind of profit motive involved--certainly, the system we see working has that profit motive involved. That seems to require putting up with drug companies that don't really care all that much whether their patients skip meals to buy their pills.
In fact, I am not arguing that we should nationalize the pharmaceutical industry. But in a market economy, my role as a consumer[1] and a public citizen isn't limited to simply buying or not buying products. If it is indeed within Abbott's rights to choose not to care whether their patients skip meals to buy their pills, then it is also within my rights to attempt to make that choice a very, very expensive public relations problem. And it's certainly within physicians' rights to make that choice more costly by avoiding prescribing Abbott drugs and refusing Abbott access to their research populations.

My posts about Wal-Mart met with the same criticism from some quarters: it's unreasonable for me to expect private corporations to behave in ways that don't maximize their own profits. Okay. But that implies that the way to change corporate behavior is by affecting its profitability. If I think Abbott's price structure and Wal-Mart's treatment of its employees are reprehensible, then my response should be to try to make those behaviors more costly. How better to do that than by fomenting massively negative public opinion?

Strangely, though, the pro-corporate folks who write to me don't want me to do that. Aren't I just exercising my proper role in a market economy, maximizing my own interests? You would certainly think so. But apparently, that's only a good thing when shareholders do it.

[1] All Americans are consumers of HIV drugs, in that the majority of them are bought with our tax money.