Mark Stevenson is a clever and funny man, so he became a comedian. But he is also a curious man with an open mind and a positive attitude towards new things, and so he toured the world and wrote a book about it: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.
As every writer has to promote his books on tour, so does Mark (and you can follow him @Optimistontour). Monday night he spent at London Skeptics in the Pub. The talk he gave was excellent and inspiring and all of you, who could not be there, should listen to it via the pod delusion.
During the talk Stevenson made one excellent point, that can not be stated enough, especially in the skeptical community: We do not only need technical improvements, but we also need experimentation and improvements in the way our government works. Unfortunately he did not have much time to elaborate on examples, but you can find a lot more in his book.
One excellent example of how government regulations can cause more harm than good is the US “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” program established in the 1970s. It was intended to reduce fuel consumption from private cars. To avoid problems for small business, the milage restrictions were limited to cars, while light trucks were exempt. As usual, the regulatory body could not anticipate human creativity, including the creativity of car manufacturers, who invented the SUV. An SUV is above the size limits of the light truck and therefore not considered a car, and consequently not included in the CAFE restrictions. So it is quite probable, that the current wave of gaz-guzzling SUV in the US is a direct (although unintended) consequence of the good idea, to reduce fuel consumption.
The same goes for the current EU program to add 10% of ethanol to all fuels. To achieve this goal, oil companies have to buy ethanol- which is either produced on fields originally covered with food crop – and therefore raising food prices all over the world, including poor countries. Alternatively ethanol can be produced from sugar cane grown on land that was covered by rainforest. But you can’t have both – large amounts of ethanol in your fuel in short time or large areas of rainforest. It is quite possible, that new technologies using bacteria and algae will be able to produce the ethanol we need in the near future – but nobody knows the exact answer by now and the idea, that a government can tell us how to achieve this goal, is simply arrogant, or as FA Hayek would put it – a fatal conceit.
My last example is from the field of modern medicine. Mark Stevenson showed us many new medications and promising results on the way of personalized medicine. But he made the mistake to think, that this might reduce the cost – when pharmaceutical companies do only have to evaluate selected medications for small groups and not a large range of medications to find the one that will suit for the general populations, this really will reduce costs per medication. Unfortunatly the regulatory reality is, that every medication has to undergo an extensive testing marathon, no matter if it was produced for a large market with several million patients or for a small individualized market (drugs for so called orphan diseases are somewhat exempt), and the cost of this marathon are fixed. So if you develop a drug that will help a small fraction of all women with breast cancer, your fixed costs are not much lower compared to the development of a drug that might help all women with breast cancer. But as a lot less doses of this drug will be sold (due to the smaller market), the price of each treatment will skyrocket. We already have the situation, that new cancer drugs will not be tested or prescribed, as they are too expensive. So unless we change the way drug development is regulated, new personalized medications will not reach the patients as they can not jump the regulatory hurdle.
Still I am optimistic about the future, and I hope that writers like Mark Stevenson might open the eyes of some people on the left side of the skeptical movement, to the fact that government is often not the solution but the root of the problems we have. And than we can work in the league of pragmatic optimists to achieve better solutions.