Conflict of Interest the Other Way

A constant beef of critics of various regulatory panels is that their members have financial ties to industry. For example, a recent piece in The New York Times made much of the fact that the FDA panel that didn’t demand that all anti-pain drugs be pulled off the market had 10 members who had “industry ties.” Written by Gardiner Harris and Alex Berenson, in the February 25th issue of The Times, the article, “10 Voters on Panel Backing Pain Pills Had Industry Ties,” lamented the fact that not all the members of the panel were completely independent of firms in the industry they were asked to oversee. It is typical of the pro-regulation media to keep insisting that anyone who has ever done any consulting for an industry must be biased in favor of that industry. While there can be some justified concern here, not unless there is evidence of bias is there warrant for indicting these people for any malfeasance.

Of course, the FDA or any other regulatory agency is going to appoint people to panels who know their stuff, and such people are bound to have had some connection with the industry they know. Drug firms, for example, need expert advice and they get such advice from university professors who will also likely to be asked by government to oversee the regulatory process. Does it follow necessarily that such people will blindly favor the interest of those in the industry that has hired them in the past? Of course not. But it is always tempting to impugn their integrity by such association. If they have worked for the industry, they must be biased. It doesn’t, however, follow by a long shot.

Now what is interesting is that the same media that is jumping all over the people who have worked for various firms in a certain industry, claiming these people are basically corrupt, does not ever consider those in the academic world as being suspect of special interests. Yet, most people in the academy work for government. Even the most prestigious private universities, like Harvard or Princeton, get gobs of money from the feds, to do research, produce papers on this or that topic of “public interest,” consult about public policy, etc. These folks are deeply beholden to government. It is virtually their bread and butter — or at least their considerable extra pocket change. Without the government associations they would not be invited to innumerable conferences, asked to publish in various journals, contribute to encyclopedias, write text books, do peer reviews, sit on agency panels, and so forth. In other words, the bulk of so-called independent scholars aren’t independent at all — they owe their soul to the company store, which is the government of the United States of America or, in many cases, their state governments. Yet few news organizations call these folks, with evident links to governments, to task for their conflict of interest. Why?

This is the governmental habit that a few people have managed to write about. Yet they have also managed to be ignored, to a large extent. Jonathan R. T. Hughes penned his book, Governmental Habit Redux: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the Present (Princeton University Press, 1991), so as to call attention to this fact but, alas, grand media outlets like The New York Times pay scant attention to their message.

The fact is that innumerable professors throughout the most prestigious universities of this and many other countries are avid supporters of government regulations and supervision of the private sector, all of which require their very own professional "assistance." They write the scholarly studies that show the need for all this regulation and supervision. They supply the apologetics for the expansion of government control of the economy and all the professions, all the high-sounding rationales about equality, for abating of poverty, for reduction for injustice via government controls, involving the expansion of government’s scope in our lives.

Yet where is the mainstream media pointing out this conflict of interest? Nowhere, that’s where. One may, then, call into question all the moralistic concern with conflict of interest when it comes to associations between experts and the industry they are being asked to judge. After all, government is the biggest of all industries, yet those who judge it, nearly all of them recipients of government’s largesse, do not get their integrity called into question by the same media that bellyaches about the alleged corruption in the private sector. I say, clean your own house, major media, before you start pointing fingers.

March 22, 2005