Wednesday, March 01, 2006

When regulations are necessary

Abi points us to this article in Wired which talks about Indians being used as guinea pigs for testing newly invented drugs. Previously, the government had regulations in place that would make it mandatory for the drug manufacturer to have tested the drug in its place of origin before it made it's way to India. Now this regulation has been withdrawn. Proponents of unrestricted deregulation would probably celebrate this move, pointing to free market dynamics and the freedom for Indians to consensually place themselves in harm's way.

This illustrates one of the biggest reservations I have about libertarianism and its unbridled application to Indian society. Its strident focus on the freedom of choice accompanied by a noticeable lack of focus on the availability of knowledge that should guide that choice. The question we have to ask here is, were these people really making a free choice when they signed up to be tested?

"Little by little, however, Kalantri began to see the problematic side of outsourced trials. "When I try to explain that a drug is experimental, that it might not work, the understanding is not there," he observes. "One woman said to me, 'What do you mean, the drug might not work? All drugs work!'"
Hospitals and doctors recruiting these human guinea pigs have no qualms about not informing them regarding the possible dangers of being tested upon. After all, it is in their best interests to keep them in the dark. More the number of patients they corral, greater is the monetary remuneration from the drug company. Also, the citizens who do allow their bodies to be a testing ground for medicine are frequently too poor to weigh their options in an educated manner. Their thinking probably is, why not go for something that the doctor says can't be all that bad, especially if there's money to be earned from it as well as free treatment for the malady they are suffering from? Isn't it therefore obvious that some kind of governmental regulation is required to make sure that patients who go for these untested methods are aware of the risks?

The way I see it, without freedom of knowledge, an unregulated free market is a virtual impossibility. Till some kind of robust framework for knowledge dissemination, especially in the rural sector, has been set up that will allow people to make all their important decisions based on hard facts, the government has to step in and enact regulations that will prohibit anyone from taking advantage of an ill-informed and financially unendowed populace. Libertarianism might be the utopian ideal, but regulation is a current necessity.

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