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A Free Market for Genes?

Mises Daily: Thursday, May 25, 2000 by and

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Last week, as reported in The Washington Times, famed physicist Freeman Dyson warned that a genetic "caste" system could come about if we allow a free market in human genes.

"Wealthy parents will be able to buy what they consider superior genes for their babies," said Dyson. "This could cause a splitting of humanity into hereditary castes…. No matter how strongly we believe in the virtues of a free-market economy, the free market must not extend to human genes."

Dyson’s concerns are both typical of other calls for government intervention in areas "too important" to leave to the free market, and equally incoherent. The first point that jumps out at us is that Dyson’s claim could just as easily, and with more sense, run the other way: Gene research is too important to be touched by the government!

After all, Dyson is saying that the field is so important that it must be left to the same crew that brought us The Vietnam War, Waco, stagflation, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the tax code, the Los Alamos fires, $1000 toilet seats, and Jimmy Carter. It would make more sense to insist that they only take on utterly trivial affairs, and leave anything even moderately important to the market.

The second oddity in Dyson’s ramblings is that his worry that the rich can benefit more from gene research than the poor is true of everything ever invented.

If something is a good, then by definition, the rich can get more of it, or better quality "it," than the poor can. However, as Hayek cogently points out, the acquisition of luxury goods by the rich is a crucial step in those items becoming common goods affordable by everyone. Because the rich can pay the high costs associated with the early days of producing a new good, producers have an opportunity to learn how to manufacture more efficiently.

If egalitarians had successfully demanded that everyone have equal access to the earliest computers, there would have been too little power available for anyone to do anything useful. But since an elite could use them for its purposes, they were able to design faster chips, higher-level languages, new storage devices, and eventually make more computing power available on a home PC than they ever dreamed of having in their $10 million facility.

As we read about Dyson’s concerns, we began to imagine the very first instance of this argument—an alarm raised by a shaman in the eldritch, flickering light of a tribal campfire:


Shaman Envisions "Tool-using Elite"

A leading shaman yesterday warned that a tool-based "caste" system might arise in the future if there is free-market trafficking in man-made tools. "Wealthy parents will be able to buy what they consider superior tools for their babies," said shaman Flintman Dystone. "This could eventually cause a splitting of humanity into separate species."

In a public address last night at the People-on-the-Shore-of-the-Dark-Lake campfire, Mr. Dystone portrayed how rapidly tool invention might proceed, taking humanity back to a time when we were divided into "walks-upright and walks-on-all-fours." The visionary speech, which came as part of a ceremony celebrating Mr. Dystone's passing the ancient age of 25, is not uncommon in the debate over tool usage.

"For many years, we've grunted and gestured about this," said John Morocko, director of the Bedrock Center for Tool Use. "I don't think anyone can say we're at that stage of the technology yet. But it is worth talking about."

The debate over who will control the tools chipped from lots and lots of rocks laying around the cave has been heightened this year by a race between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal ventures. The Neanderthal Tool Project, which is run entirely by tribal elders, expects to establish a standard human tool set by 64,001 BC. The private venture called "The Cro-Magnons: Tools R’ Us" in Rockville, is claiming to have nearly completed the project, and soon will be ready to sell its tools to "subscribers."

In response, the Neanderthal Tool Project—already drum beating its data around the many tribes—announced it will step up that effort to make tool information free in the public domain.

Mr. Dystone, who did important work in the invention of fire, says advanced tool-making demands tribal regulation. "The ultimate danger of advanced tool technology comes from its power to change the nature of human beings by the application of labor-saving engineering to human activities," Mr. Dystone said.

"No matter how strongly we believe in the virtues of a free market economy, the free market must not extend to tools."

He said tools meanwhile have produced "tremendous goods" such as big sharp sticks to stab our enemies with.

"The two great evils to be avoided are the use of even sharper weapons in the future, and the corruption of human nature by the buying and selling of tools," he said.

Mr. Dystone's ethical message, delivered from atop Big-Rock-that-Fell-from-Sky, resonates along Rockville’s Technology Corridor. The 25 miles of dirt paths are home to nearly half of Rockville’s three tool-making businesses.

"If handled properly, tool information can be used without creating ethical problems, " said Robert-Who-Lives-in-a-Burrow, director of corporate communications for Robert’s Sharp Sticks Inc. in Rockville.

The company will distribute technical information on how tools seem to be "easier than killing stuff with your hands," allowing hunters to catch and process more game. Dystone, meanwhile, derided the company as a bunch of "cowrie-shell-grubbing profiteers," and urged the public to shun them.

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Gene Callahan is a writer and programmer. Send him MAIL. Stu Morgenstern co-authored The Gluetrain Manifesto with Callahan, and is a contributing editor at The Frumious Bandersnatch e-zine. Send him MAIL.