Bill Gates’ “Grand Challenges in Global Health”

Yesterday Bill Gates issued a global challenge on health. He put up $200 million to spur research on diseases that haven’t been studied sufficiently by scientists, because they occur mainly in poor parts of the world, rather than here in the West. This is a wholly admirable thing to do. But the rhetoric of his announcement was also interesting….

What I find interesting is that Gates said that he was putting up the money because scientists’ inattention to diseases in the Third World represented “an unacceptable ‘market failure'” (according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Other stories reported the phrasing a bit differently. The Washington Post quotes Gates as saying that “there has got to be, given market signals, systematic underinvestment in research on diseases of people who cannot afford medical treatment.” And ABC News quotes him as saying: “The market isn’t there to justify developing treatments for some diseases that will ultimately have to be given away or sold at cost.”

The point being, that Gates feels compelled to explain his actions as compensating for a failure of the “free market.” Which itself is a backhanded testimony to the way that market fundamentalism, the belief that the market is automatically beneficent and efficient, the best cure for all our ills, is so entrenched in American public discourse. In fact, it is only because this dogmatic belief in the market is so deeply engrained, that anyone could be surprised at its not working properly to provide health care to the world’s poor.

At least Bill Gates is smart enough, and pragmatic enough, to suspend his otherwise ironclad faith in the market, when things have gone awry so calamitously. Unfortunately I don’t think that this laudable empiricism is shared by the politicians and “experts” in Washington, of either party.