In response to a journalist's question, “What do you think about Western civilization?” Mahatma Gandhi is said to have replied, “It would be a good idea.” Any honest person who values the concept of the free market, who believes in the promise of open economic competition, would say the same thing about capitalism. We hear our politicians, and of course the corporate news and entertainment media, speaking as if the United States were a model of free-market capitalism, as if anyone could start a business to create and sell a product or service without the obstruction of the government. The truth is quite different. Those we hear saying such things are quite often voices that are bankrolled by large corporations, which themselves are often protected from competition by mutual agreement with the federal government. The concept of free trade is simple: if Company A can produce and distribute a product more efficiently and at a higher quality than Company B, it should be allowed to do so, and to charge any price for it that free consumers are willing to pay. Although Company B would likely suffer as a result, humanity would benefit from freer and cheaper access to high-quality goods. Sometimes free trade works nicely, as when Company A is in the United States and Company B is in India. Then, agreements are signed to “open up” India to the cheaper goods made by Company A, even if doing so crushes Company B because, we say, consumers have a right to cheap, high-quality goods. But if Company A were in India and Company B were in the United States, the story would likely be very different. This isn't an idle example. India developed a pharmaceutical industry many years ago that could produce drugs very cheaply that would save tens of thousands of lives each year. In a free-market economy, the Indian pharmaceutical industry would have been allowed to make drugs and get them to the people who needed them. But that would mean that western pharmaceutical companies would make less profit. Of course, it's not that the American pharmaceutical companies don't care about Indian children dying because they can't get drugs; it's just that their responsibility is to their stockholders. They must maximize profits. But the “free market” was getting in the way. So they simply changed the rules. Thus, in 1994 India “agreed” to “liberalize” its pharmaceutical industry by allowing its largest drug companies to be sold to Western interests, thereby reducing competition. Drug prices predictably shot up, putting them out of reach of people who needed them, but the Western corporations made more money. It was a big triumph for the “liberalization” of markets, but a great blow to free markets. In a free economy, businesses are also expected to wager their own capital on success in the marketplace. The adventurous entrepreneur is a moral icon in the United State. The American pharmaceutical industry, however, receives over half a billion dollars annually in federal tax dollars in the form of research grants to develop medications and vaccines that they can then patent and sell back to consumers at monopolistic prices. The legislators who sponsor these grants know that their campaigns will likely receive reciprocal monetary benefit as a result. What is worse, most American voters accept this system happily because they believe that they are simply helping to find cures for diseases. The reality, however, is very different: by discouraging the competition that leads to real progress, this system of protectionism is actually a huge impediment to the elimination of disease.