George Will on Pharmaceutical Imports

George Will being George Will

In ABC’s New Hampshire debate, McCain said: “Why shouldn’t we be able to reimport drugs from Canada ?” A conservative’s answer is: That amounts to importing Canada’s price controls, a large step toward a system in which some medicines would be inexpensive but many others — new pain-relieving, life-extending pharmaceuticals — would be unavailable.

Mr. Will prides himself on being a conservative, so I presume when he writes about a conservative’s answer, he means his own.

Which means, I guess, that Mr. Will would support preventing Americans from importing or reimporting food from Mexico. There are price ceilings on a number of products, including tortillas, and the government has muscled the big corn flour producers into keeping prices low, and importing food from Mexico will, in effect, amount to importing Mexico’s price controls on food.

But Mexico is small potatoes, er, make that small corn. Last year the Chinese government froze prices on a wide range of goods and services “including those for land, transport, utilities and fuel.” These are all inputs into the stuff Americans buy from China, an in effect put an upper limit on the amount that suppliers of these inputs can charge in the US. After all, American users of those inputs have to compete with Chinese users of those inputs. Thus, by Mr. Will’s logic, allowing Americans to purchase goods from China is equivalent to importing the Chinese system of price controls for land, transport, utilities and fuel.

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself… cactus is stretching a point pretty thin here. We don’t import electricity from China directly so those price controls matter less than the price controls on something we import directly, like pharmaceuticals.

Which brings me to another post Mr. Will wrote a while back, one that a good liberal can agree with. Here Mr. Will rails against market distortions that keep the price of sugar in the US way above the world price. As he points out… this makes American users of sugar uncompetitive and costs jobs in the US. Are we to assume that Chinese regulations that keep Chinese the price of Chinese inputs low don’t do the same thing?

Anyway, I personally am not so sure we should put limits (other than those related to health or safety) on the imports of Canadian pharmaceuticals, Mexican food products or Chinese imports in general. But I don’t see how Mr. Will can make an argument that Americans shouldn’t be allowed to import pharmaceuticals from Canada without casting an equally grim eye toward stuff that comes from Mexico and China.