The LA Times recently reported on a $2,500 bottle of prescription cream. This is not special cream; the same cream costs a mere fiver outside of the United States. Instead, the inflated price exists simply because it can. A pharmaceutical corporation that holds a patent has an effective monopoly on a medicine and can charge whatever it wants.
The reason a tube of cream doesn’t cost $2,500 in Canada or the United Kingdom is due to legislation. The state has prohibited the monopoly from asking too much. But the monopoly still exists. While the liberal paradigm is to try and legislate problems away, like most reformist solutions it does not touch the root. The root here, as in most cases, is property itself.
Intellectual property, including the patent, is especially insidious. While natural resources such as land are scarce and, thus, perhaps deserving of some protection, intellectual property is not. This is because intellectual property is fundamentally ephemeral. What the law really says is this: an idea belongs to someone else and you can’t use it.
“Good. I took that cat picture. No one should be able to use it without my permission.” Many artists, no doubt, feel that intellectual property protects their livelihoods. And it does to some extent. It does so by creating special privileges for the first persons to claim an idea and, then, granting them a monopoly. And while it is easy to sympathize with the lone artist, the real beneficiaries of patents and intellectual property are not the common man. They are not the “middle class” or the “small business owner.” They aren’t the starving artist living in shack.
Those who benefit the most from intellectual property are large corporate institutions. Technology and software, such as Microsoft or Facebook, major media, such as Disney, and, most dangerously, the pharmaceutical industry. The monopoly granted to these institutions, a monopoly fully based on manifesting artificial scarcity (as ideas are non-scarce), is responsible for technological stagnation and backwardness, entrenched media manipulation (propaganda), and physical harm.
Here’s a real life example to illustrate the concept:
In the United States and Europe, for many years, people suffered and died because they could not afford the medicines necessary to suppress HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This was even the case in states with “socialized” medical care. When India realized that there was an HIV problem, but that no one could afford the medicine, it did a sane thing. It broke international law. Instead of honoring the intellectual property and patents of drug makers, it simply copied the exact same medicine for a fraction of the cost. The treatments that cost thousands of dollars for Americans suddenly cost dollars (yes, dollars) for Indians.
Medicines ranging from the herpes cream above, to pain maintenance for chronic sufferers, to pills needed to keep people alive are restricted by economic protectionism. They are not the forces of a “free market” (doesn’t exist), but the collusion between the state and the holders of patents it grants. And this is the story of all property in general: the state uses the force of law to create artificial scarcity and restrict property. Patents and intellectual property are just one example, a particularly egregious example, whereby monopolistic scarcity is created from the infinity of the idea.