In this first part of an article by Fran Quigley, we excerpt the history of medicines as a public good:

“Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the rich and the powerful fenced off commonly held land and transformed it into private property. Land switched from a source of subsistence to a source of profit, and small farmers were relegated to wage laborers. In Das Kapital, Marx described the process by coining the term land-grabbing. To British historian E.P. Thompson, it was “a plain enough case of class robbery.”

More recently, a similar enclosure movement has taken place. This time, the fenced-off commodity is life-saving medicine. Playing the role of modern-day lords of the manor are pharmaceutical corporations, which have taken a good that was once considered off-limits for private profiteering and turned it into an expensive commodity. Instead of displacing small landholders, this enclosure movement causes suffering and death: Billions of people across the globe go without essential medicines, and 10 million die each year as a result.

Many people curse the for-profit medicine industry. But few know that the enclosure erected around affordable medicines is both relatively new and artificially imposed. For nearly all of human history, attempting to corner the markets on affordable medicines has been considered both immoral and illegal.

It’s time now to reclaim this commons, and reestablish medicines as a public good.

Most of us define public goods broadly. We use the term to refer to benefits like law enforcement, street lights, and mass transit, which are collectively provided and deliver shared value to all. Economists narrow down that definition somewhat, saying that public goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable in their consumption.

Non-rivalrous means that any one person can benefit from a good without reducing others’ opportunity to benefit as well. My eating an apple prevents you from consuming it, so that’s a rivalrous good. But I can watch the same TV show as you without lessening your opportunity to enjoy it as well—that’s non-rivalrous.

Non-excludable means what it sounds like: A person cannot be prevented from consuming the good in question. Clean air is a good that can be enjoyed by all without the possibility of denying access to those who don’t register or pay a fee. But access to a private swimming pool is an excludable good. The classic example of a non-rivalrous, non-excludable public good is a lighthouse: One ship benefitting from its warning doesn’t subtract from any other ships’ chances of enjoying a similar benefit, and there’s no practical way of limiting the lighthouse’s warnings to a select few.

As the English enclosure movement proved, exclusivity can be artificially created by literally or figuratively walling off common access. Exclusivity can be undone as well: The modern open-source software movement takes a good that some have tried to make exclusive—software code—and freely shares it, leading to a plethora of creative developments.

In terms of medicines, an individual pill is rivalrous, but the details of the formula for creating that pill are not. Knowledge is a classic public good, in that it can be shared widely without penalty to the original owner. As Thomas Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening me; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

The public-health implications of access to medicines generate another core quality of public goods: positive externalities.

One person’s consumption of an essential medicine provides clear benefits beyond the direct consumer. Vaccines, for example, prevent the recipient both from getting ill and from spreading the disease to others. If a society vaccinates widely enough, the chain of disease transmission is broken, leading to the quintessential public good of mass immunity. Global distribution of the smallpox vaccine, for example, has led to the eradication of a disease that once infected 50 million people a year.

Even less obviously social medicines allow their recipients to better contribute to the social fabric and economic productivity of their communities. These medicines save costs for the broader society, too. When a diabetic takes insulin or a person with a risk for heart disease takes cholesterol-reducing medicine, they not only function better: They also lower their prospects of needing more expensive medical treatment, which is a cost often shared across societies.

Conversely, a lack of access to medicine causes enormous social problems in terms of contagion and economy-depressing illnesses.

So it’s little wonder that, for nearly all of human history, societies have treated medicine as a commonly held benefit. Until well past the middle of the 20th century, few countries allowed individuals or companies to hold exclusive rights to produce medicines. And governments have long been involved early and often in the pharmaceutical industry, creating the very opposite of a laissez-faire market. Most industrialized governments tightly regulate the production and distribution of medicine, while actively promoting vaccinations and encouraging safe use of other medicines. Governments are both leading funders of medicine research and top purchasers of the end products of that research.

When governments don’t take a sufficiently activist role in the field of medicines, public opinion pushes them further. In the 1990s and 2000s, advocates gave voice to passionate outrage over the devastating human cost of patent-priced HIV/AIDS medicines, which limited access to sufferers who could afford expensive treatments. US activists threw the ashes of AIDS victims on the lawn of the White House, while African activists called treatment-resistant government ministers murderers. The protests led to the dismantling of patent price barriers—and then to massive public programs to distribute the medicine at low or no cost.

Among governments and the public alike, medicines continue to be treated as a good quite distinct from consumer items like cell phones or flat-screen TVs. A human right to access essential medicines has found its way into international treaties and national constitutions. A moral claim for universal access to essential medicines has been put forth not only by faith-based organizations and civil society actors, but also by many drug developers themselves. Jonas Salk, for example, declined to pursue a patent for the polio vaccine, saying the patent belonged to the people. The creator of the first synthetic malaria vaccine donated the patent to the World Health Organization.

As Salk said in 1952: “Would you patent the sun?”

Photo by Victoria Reay

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