Senate confirmation hearings tend to follow a certain traditional format. Senators from the president’s party ask incisive, hard-hitting questions like, “Tell me, Mr. Smith, how is it that you have managed to singlehandedly save the auto industry, devote hours every week to your work rescuing orphans from house fires, and yet still remain so well-dressed, charming, and devastatingly handsome?” Opposition senators, meanwhile, pull out the howitzers.
Senator: “I have here a report from www.gruesomeliesaboutpublicfigures.com that says you like to puree puppies in a blender and drink them as a breakfast smoothie. Why do you do that, Mr. Smith?
Mr. Smith: “I don’t drink pureed puppies for breakfast.”
Senator: “So you’ve stopped pureeing puppies for breakfast. Was that because you were afraid that it would become public and derail your nefarious secret plan to devastate the U.S. economy from your perch at the Department of Agriculture? Or did you just get tired of puppy blood? ”
It’s entertaining viewing, but not really all that informative. And it has little impact when the nomination comes to a vote, which tends to break down on party lines. Mostly, it’s just a way for senators to get themselves on the teevee.
This week’s hearing on Alex Azar’s nomination for HHS secretary, however, featured a little bit of a format change. Azar took some friendly fire hits from a Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, over drug reimportation. The senator ultimately said that he couldn’t support Azar’s nomination unless he was convinced that Azar would be open to allowing Americans to buy drugs from abroad.
What’s the big deal? After all, a statin is not a fine French wine or a ripe Dutch cheese. It’s exactly the same stuff you get here.
Ho, ho, ho, I’m kidding, of course. People want to buy drugs in other countries because they’re precisely the same stuff you get here, only cheaper. And Rand Paul thinks that it’s a violation of free-market principles to prevent them from doing so.
He has a point. The patent, after all, is a pretty hefty violation of the idea of a perfectly competitive market; it’s essentially a government-granted monopoly, and in general, economists aren’t very fond of those.
Yet there is an argument for patents and copyrights. There are certain products for which the major cost of production simply consists of the intellectual labor needed to invent the product in the first place: the research to discover the drug, the hours spent tinkering on a new motor, the painful pounding of the keyboard until all the words are down in approximately the right order to make someone want to pay to read them.
Unfortunately, as soon as that product goes onto the market, it is often quite easy for competitors to copy what you’ve done — and since they do not have all your expensive development overhead to defray, they can undercut your price, so that the person who did the most important work gets none of the recompense.
(Photo: Allison Bell/TA)