The Perils of Utilitarian Thinking

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As I’ve argued before, the utilitarian justifications that underlie most arguments in favor of intellectual property are deeply flawed. As I noted previously,

even the strongest patent rights in the world simply might not give enough extra profits to justify the generation of some “really useful” [products, such as] drugs. So by using the standard utilitarian reasoning underlying [the] advocacy of patent law [...], why not let some administrative commission dole out taxpayer-funded subsidies to the pharmaceutical industry.

I.e., if patents are justified on the grounds that they are necessary to give incentives to “innovators” to allow them to make enough profit to invest in innovation (via the monopoly price the patent allows them to charge), and if the patent system is simply a government-created and administered system designed by the government to achieve this result, then why not cut to the chase and simply have the government give tailored tax-funded subsidies to “deserving” innovators?

I concluded “I better shut up. They might not realize I’m being sarcastic.”

My fears were not unfounded. Intellectual property and its discontents, by Tom Giovanetti, points out that certain

activists [... ] want to radically change how pharmaceutical innovation is accomplished. They propose that governments should nationalize intellectual property, levy new taxes to fund R&D, and then incentivize R&D through prizes administered by new government-sponsored enterprises or, even better, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) staffed by technocrats unaccountable to voters.

(Thanks to Kent Snyder for the link.)

11:08 am on October 14, 2004