A hedge fund manager turned pharmaceuticals CEO—with no scientific training in drug development—buys the rights to a drug, raises the price by 5,000 percent, stands by his decision, then possibly relents, a little. This is probably the least shocking news of the week. Between the laws, the absence of laws, and the character of corporate meritocracy, our society is diligently set up to encourage and justify what Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli did with the price of his new drug. Far more telling of how this backward meritocracy works is how Shkreli has handled himself in the face of controversy.
Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams gives us a useful account of her friend in the biotech industry, who calls Shkreli “the Donald Trump of drug development.” The comparison is apt for more reasons than Williams’ friend lets on. Indeed, when Shkreli was questioned by Fierce Biotech editor John Carroll, a journalist who specializes in the pharmaceutical industry, Shkreli called him a “moron” who “doesn’t think logically.” It’s same stark, albeit unsubstantial, assertion of intellectual superiority that Trump tries on when he’s being criticized by political rivals, calling them “morons,” “dumb,” “idiots.”
We have a tendency to view that kind of language as merely immature or unfeeling, but the truth is that Shkreli and Trump are the ones with the cognitive deficit. As U.S. political discourse veers rapidly toward a battle over political correctness, between “rational” people on the right who divine the harsh world plainly for what it is, and the “emotional” left, the “social justice warriors” who have “feelings” about how society treats the poor and underprivileged, the language of cold, calculating intellectual superiority with which Shkreli and Trump defend their actions is of paramount importance. This false dichotomy, for which what’s “rational” becomes not-so-curiously aligned with any and all free-market outcomes, and what’s “emotional” becomes aligned with moral challenges to free-market outcomes, forms the basis of so much rightist political rhetoric.
What people like Shkreli and Trump are evidently not smart enough to grasp, however, is that it’s both possible and reasonable to feel strongly about something and to have a rational and evidence-based justification for the position about which you feel strongly. In other words, the failure of logic belongs to Shkreli, who seems not to understand that having a rational position and feeling strongly about that position are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, strong feelings about political positions often develop as a consequence of having thoroughly and rationally scrutinized an issue.
In Shkreli’s case, it’s simply intellectually lazy to default to the market—an abstraction with no moral authority—to justify his choice to raise the price of Daraprim 5,000 percent. Putting aside that Shkreli abuses the logic of the market when he picks another, high-priced drug as a point of comparison to argue that Daraprim was undervalued (without explaining why it’s not also possible that the other drug was overvalued), it’s also perfectly logical for us to ask whether it’s moral to raise the price of a drug 5,000 percent overnight. That question—is what Shrkeli did the right thing to do—is a thornier and more intellectually challenging question than “is there a market justification for what you have done?” Every intelligent person should be asking the question about what is right, not just what is explicable within the narrow parameters of the market’s logic.
“What is right” is a question of moral reasoning, one that can be answered with the aid of empirical evidence (for example, what are the measured effects of such rapid and massive price increases on hospitals, insurers, patients?) and attended with considerations of comparable historical cases. This is to say that one needn’t simply feel like Shrkeli is behaving immorally. One can also think that Shkreli is behaving immorally; and that his immoral behavior is a function of an intellectual shortcoming.
The spectacles of people like Shkreli and Trump calling critics of their actions “morons” and “illogical” exemplify a bigger issue in what we take to be our “meritocracy.” Hard work is certainly important, and I wouldn’t presume that either Shkreli or Trump aren’t hard workers. But in our pseudo-intellectualized “knowledge economy,” for which qualities like intelligence, creativity, and foresight are meant to form the entrepreneur’s cutting edge, we’re grossly undervaluing moral reasoning. We attribute to intelligence a kind of cold, calculating ruthlessness, but that’s not intelligence; in some ways, as I’ve pointed out above, it’s a form of stupidity.
The latest news suggests that Shkreli will now lower the price of Daraprim, a decision I’m sure Shkreli made with market (and perhaps regulatory) considerations in mind. Is he now being—following his comments just days ago— an illogical “moron” because he’s decided to change the price, despite that he thinks his initial price increase was market-appropriate? Or has he begun to consider an additional sphere of reasoning, one that takes into consideration a broader and more complicated set of concerns than “price go up, price go down”? Might a more rational and intelligent approach—to supplant the brash, smarmy approach with which he started—have saved him trouble, maybe even money?
Among other things, then, the Daraprim affair is something of a naked emperor moment for reason’s false prophets. Let “morons!” and “feelings!” and “emotional!” cease to be epithets for people who demonstrate both moral and intellectual interest (if not superiority) in complicated issues that affect millions of people. And let some expository light shine on those who are so quick to dismiss as “illogical” any critical examination of what’s the right thing to do. Those who are only capable of reasoning from arbitrarily imposed absolutes like “the market” aren’t intellectually fit to lead a company, less a nation.