I was struck by this recent Guardian article, in which Ben Goldacre showed how pharmaceutical companies systematically manipulate the evidence that reaches doctors and the general public about the efficacy or otherwise of their products, cherry-picking good results, suppressing bad or neutral ones.
It tells you something about the immense power of these companies that they can get away with this even in a country like the UK, where their dominant customer is single giant nationwide organisation, with a £100bn budget, and the power of the state behind it. (The English NHS is said to be the fifth largest organisation on Earth, but even so it apparently lacks the clout to say to its suppliers, ‘Either you’re transparent with us or we won’t buy your drugs.’)
For many years now, we have been fed a neo-liberal orthodoxy about the virtues of the unfettered market in which the free choices of consumers will reward efficiency and drive out mediocrity, and for years we have been told that state intervention is stifling and bad. But what stories like this one seem to demonstrate is that big companies actually work very hard to stop consumers making rational choices, and they work pretty hard too to avoid free competition (as the recent LIBOR scandal illustrated). Far from being the enemy of a free marketplace, heavy state intervention looks to me the only possible means of maintaining such a fragile, delicate and deeply artifical entity as a free and fair marketplace.
Without it, ultimately, you don’t get Adam Smith’s Utopian hidden hand. You get the Mafia.