Copy the Thermometers? Scarcity and Rights to Medical or Health Care

If the good can be [copied or] taken (shared) without displacing the original, it is always nonscarce. If taking the original means that it can no longer exist in the possession of the original owner or possessor, it is a scarce good.

-Jeffrey Tucker & Stephan Kinsella, 2010

For the past 70 years, there have been many proponents of the idea people have rights to medical or health care.  In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt declared Americans should have, among other new rights, the “right to adequate medical care.”  Several years later, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights announced “Everyone has the right to…medical care,” an assertion Pope John Paul II repeated in a 1963 encyclical.  Of course, with the passing of RomneyCare and ObamaCare in recent years, some state legislators and U.S. congresspersons are attempting to make health care a right in America.

However, these and other proponents of rights to medical or health care have overlooked how providing medical and health care requires use of many scarce goods, which are goods[1] with a quantity available for consumption less than the quantity demanded. According to scholars Jeffrey Tucker and Stephan Kinsella, scarcity “refers to the possible existence of conflict over the possession of a finite thing.” Obviously, some scarce goods in the medical and health care fields are thermometers, beds, casts, prescription pills, and doctors’ and nurses’ time.  Everyone can’t have a right to possess these scarce goods: If you throw these goods in an emergency room’s middle, the patients could brawl.

Proponents of rights to medical or health care would make more sense arguing for rights to the nonscarce goods involved in medical or health care.  Nonscarce goods have the following description:

[Things] in demand that can be replicated without limit…with no additional copy having displaced the previous copy and with no degradation in the quality of the copied good from the original good…I can have one, you can have one, and we call all have one.

If a machine could copy thermometers in composition and function similar to how photocopiers copy book pages, then thermometers would become nonscarce goods.

According to the following video the Ludwig Von Mises Institute posted, here’s why copying nonscarce goods isn’t theft:

Examples of nonscarce goods involved in medical or health care include the following:

  • Chemical formulas for pharmaceuticals (which anyone can copy)
  • Computer software dealing with health and medical care (e.g., software for health management or for analyzing heart rates)
  • Trade secrets on how to build specialized medical devices (more than one company could make and sell the best-available equipment)
  • Health books or medical textbooks (or electronic files of these books)
  • Instructional videos of healthy habits
  • Audio files of medical advice

Of course, rights to such nonscarce goods would require the abolishment of intellectual property (IP) laws (there could be a phase-out process), including laws regulating copyrights,[2] patents, and trade secrets.  However, this libertarian idea of abolishing IP laws, though I think it’s radical, is arguably consistent with the principles of economics and property rights.  For discussions about the propriety of abolishing IP laws, including abolishment’s possible impacts on creative and scientific output, see publications by Kinsella and economist Julio Cole here, here, and here. Most people probably support IP laws. I don’t necessarily agree with abolishing IP laws (before I started this blog’s research, I supported IP laws), but I’m still learning about the topic.  However, the debate about IP laws’ propriety, especially as it relates to supposed rights to medical or health care, is intriguing.

Readers shouldn’t confuse this libertarian argument against IP laws as a socialist argument for redistribution of goods or profits. For one, government would be getting out of the way and not doing things to redistribute goods or profits. But more importantly, this libertarian argument deals with, among other topics, economic fundamentals. For instance, as economist Thomas Sowell notes, “Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources [not nonscarce resources,] which have alternative uses.”[3] Essentially, as Kinsella and others have noted, IP laws make scarce that which is nonscarce (namely good ideas), and nonscarce goods are among God’s great blessings.

[1] Professors Arleen and John Hoag define a good as follows:

[A]nything that satisfies a want. That is the purpose of production — to provide goods that satisfy wants. So goods are produced, and the consumption of those goods satisfies wants. Goods can be tangible or intangible. Tangible goods are physical items such as bulldozers or pizzas. Intangible goods such as medical care or education are called services. Both goods and services satisfy wants and therefore can be called goods.

[2] As Kinsella notes, “[U.S.] [c]opyright law gives the exclusive right to reproduce the work, prepare derivative works, or to perform or present the work publicly.”  However, as economist Julio Cole argues, abolishing U.S. copyright law would not infringe the following moral rights of authors, “which are ancient legal concepts”: “(1) the right to be identified as the creator of the work (so-called ‘paternity rights’ of authorship and protections against plagiarism),…(2) protections against unauthorized alterations or mutilations of the work (so-called ‘integrity rights’ of authorship[, and (3)]…the right to withhold publication.

[3] Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 1.

About Dan Smyth

Dan Smyth earned his Master of Public Policy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His articles have appeared in the Washington Times, American Thinker, the Freeman, and other publications. Find him on Twitter at @DanielSmyth7.

Katy Zweifel
Katy Zweifel

Pardon the cynicism (and I'll accept accusations of naivete), but I find this touches upon the greed I suspect even in the medical field. Will we ever have access to goods such as formulas, software, "trade secrets," etc.? It seems there's quite a bit of money to be had for those currently in possession of those nonscarce goods.

Katy Zweifel
Katy Zweifel

Pardon the cynicism (and I'll accept accusations of naivete), but I find this touches upon the greed I suspect even in the medical field. Will we ever have access to goods such as formulas, software, "trade secrets," etc.? It seems there's quite a bit of money to be had for those currently in possession of those nonscarce goods.

Daniel Smyth
Daniel Smyth

 @Katy Zweifel Thanks for your comments, Katy: Your cynicism is on point! Not only do IP laws make nonscarce goods scarce, IP laws also create monopolies for originators of a copyright, patent, trade secret, etc.  No doubt it's now politically unfeasible for Congress to abolish IP laws.  As IP laws, aside from protecting folks in the medical field, also protect music companies, book companies, scientists/inventors in non-medical fields, and artists, many people would object to abolishment of IP laws. However, if more people realize the scarce vs. nonscarce distinction, especially regarding their access to MP3s, movies, and important drugs protected for years by patent or trade secrets, then we could at least start to see a relaxation of IP laws.  In other words, if more people like this rapper get word out (slight language warning), lol: