Playing Chess with Vaccines

by Russ Roberts on January 28, 2005

in Health, Prices

Here’s one of many stories that say we’re going to have a vaccine surplus after all:

    

The nation’s shortage of flu vaccine has turned into a
surplus, with nearly 5 million doses languishing in the federal
government’s hastily purchased stockpile, officials said yesterday.

    

With demand dwindling, it appears likely that instead
of running out of shots this year, the government will end up
discarding unused vaccine, they said.

In response to the surprising turnaround, the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is poised to drop
the remaining restrictions on who should get the shots, a move already
taken by at least 17 states, in a last-ditch effort to minimize the
amount of wasted vaccine. New York took that step yesterday.

 

    

In addition, federal and state officials have launched
a campaign to persuade more people to get vaccinated, especially those
at highest risk from the flu, before the peak of the season hits,
probably in the next month or two.

The government’s role in destroying this market by destroying profitability and killing the role of price in creating the orderly matching of supply with demand goes unreported here or in any other story I’ve seen so far.  Soon we’ll be seeing the stories that argue that because the "market" in vaccines doesn’t work, we have to get the government even more involved.

The shortage-surplus seesaw reminds me of my favorite Adam Smith quote.  It’s from The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in
his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed
beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer
the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to
establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard
either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which
may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the
different members of a great society with as much ease as the
hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does
not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other
principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon
them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every
single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether
different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress
upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same
direction, the game of human society will go on easily and
harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If
they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably,
and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of
disorder.

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