Cops & Robbers

I just saw the critically acclaimed 2005 film “The Constant Gardener” today. In a nutshell (spoiler alert): an idealistic young woman and her sensibly well meaning diplomat husband learn the fatal lesson that their good intentions are no match for immense corporate greed and government corruption on an international scale. Some mega pharmaceutical companies essentially run human testing of shoddily designed drugs for tuberculosis on terminal AIDS patients in Africa. The patients’ “informed consent” is obtained by offering them the choice between AIDS treatment if they participate in the TB trials or no treatment if they don’t. Of course the AIDS treatment is supposed to be provided by completely unrelated foreign government sponsored humanitarian aid programs. But they are all in bed together. The trial results are slanted so that the patients who experience adverse effects — and die from them — are quietly removed from the records as ever having existed. The drug companies pay off the governments in their home countries. The governments look the other way when the falsified research data (not to mention the morally questionable research methods) are presented for the purpose of regulatory approval.

I don’t really know whether this story is based on real facts, but we all know that governments are very frequently instruments of material gain for those who can afford to buy their cooperation. On this topic, I would highly recommend Tim Carney’s well researched book “The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money” although I have a few significant disagreements with its conclusions (look for my review of it some time soon). But for today, my question is what would happen if there were no government oversight of corporations? Carney and others focus their suspicions on government. To an extent that’s sensible. For example, if there were no regulatory approval to seek, would those pharmaceutical companies in the movie even feel the need to put on this elaborate ruse in the first place? Some say that oversight mechanisms are so pervasively vulnerable to abuse that they become not much more than excuses for bribery and patronage. Again, in our movie example: without government complicity the companies may not have had the enormous resources and power to operate such a large scale scam.

But I’m not sure the answer is as simple as just getting rid of the governments. Doesn’t that sound a bit like scrapping the whole idea of policing as a “solution” for a city where criminals have become powerful enough to buy off the cops?

For tonight, I’m just raising the question. More later.

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