In early January, the British medical journal BMJ completed an investigation into one of the most notorious articles in recent history: Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study in The Lancet claiming that the MMR vaccine, designed to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella, causes autism. The Lancet had already retracted the piece in February 2010 (following a partial retraction in 2004), and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license three months later. BMJ concluded that Wakefield consciously distorted the medical histories of each of the 12 patients on which he based his study. "The MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud," Editor in Chief Fiona Godlee wrote. Such "clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare."
Since the original article was published, vaccination rates have tumbled in the U.K. and U.S., while measles rates have shot up. Certainly Wakefield and The Lancet shoulder some responsibility for the damage done to public health. But bad information does not spread and trigger action (or, in this case, inaction) without a willing audience. The vaccine/autism link has been debunked repeatedly since 1998—by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, and the British National Health Service, among many others. Yet the myth persisted. Why?
One reason is perfectly understandable: Reported incidence of autism was going up, and parents in this overprotective age were freaking out. Anti-vaccine sentiment also overlapped with the ideas of the all-natural wing of the counterculture. But a key precondition for believing and propagating the anti-vaccine myth was a fundamental distrust of corporations, especially the pharmaceutical variety.
"The story of how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of [the MMR-style vaccine ingredient] thimerosal from the public is a chilling case study of institutional arrogance, power and greed," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in an influential, conspiratorial, and widely debunked article for Rolling Stone in 2005. "The evidence suggests our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children."
You do not need to be an apologist for Big Pharma to observe that maybe it's against the self-interest of an industry to deliberately poison its customers. So how does one arrive at such a monstrous conclusion?
In Kennedy's case it's of a piece with his belief that Republicans are in cahoots with big corporations to steal elections (such as the presidential race in 2004) and reintroduce fascism. "While communism is the control of business by government, fascism is the control of government by business," he wrote in the 2004 book Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy. "My American Heritage Dictionary defines fascism as 'a system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership together with belligerent nationalism.' Sound familiar?" In Kennedy's nightmare world, corporations can only be restrained by granting more power to a centralized government through measures such as nationalizing oil companies, re-instituting the Fairness Doctrine, and emulating the enlightened policies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (the "kind of leader my father and President Kennedy were looking for" in Latin America).
Although the anti-corporate virus only occasionally infects the host with pro-Chavez insanity, even less extreme versions can do tremendous harm. Whenever you see an otherwise semi-sound liberal or progressive thinker succumb to fact-free paranoia, expect to find the c-word nearby.
The autism-vaccine fraud found its most receptive audiences in the left-leaning media outlets Salon, Rolling Stone, and especially The Huffington Post. Fear and loathing of corporations is at the heart of liberal revulsion at the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a ruling that you would otherwise think should warm a liberal's heart, centered as it is on the right to broadcast a political documentary without approval from the government. Yet there was MSNBC host Keith Olbermann saying that Citizens United "might actually have more dire implications than Dred Scott v. Sandford," the notorious 1857* decision that declared blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
If political hyperbole were the only byproduct of anti-corporate hysteria, we could safely laugh at it and move on to more pleasurable pursuits. Alas, we do not have that luxury. As two articles in this issue vividly illustrate, fear of corporations is directly responsible for a dreadful mistake: increasing government control over the Internet. In "The Rise of Cybercollectivism," Adam Thierer documents more than a decade of consistent—and consistently wrong—techno-pessimism from a parade of left-wing activists who believe state power is the only defense against a corporate takeover of all things online. In "Internet Cop," Associate Editor Peter Suderman explains how that belief led the Federal Communications Commission to foist "net neutrality" regulations on a public that has never expressed interest in federal controls over what is arguably the single most remarkable development of modern life. Suderman shows that neutrality activists have managed to codify some of their goals even though they have yet to offer convincing examples of the corporate misbehavior they are trying to prevent.
That sort of anti-corporate policy nullifies the hard-won insights that many left-leaning policy analysts arrived at in the 1970s. December saw the passing of a great American: the academic and bureaucrat Alfred E. Kahn, father of airline deregulation. Kahn was a liberal Democrat who, after applying rigorous study to the impact of federal regulation on industry, came to the conclusion that in many cases regulation served to raise prices, blunt innovation, form government-sanctioned industrial cartels, and discriminate against new businesses. The market, not the government, was the most effective tool to discipline big business, because corporations that punished their customers were doomed to failure. In short, Kahn understood that misguided regulation produced exactly what Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims to despise: big business and government entwined in unholy corporatism.
Liberals and Democrats in the 1970s —a decade that should have proved once and for all the folly of letting "the best and the brightest" try to build a technocratic nirvana—understood that loosening government control helped consumers at the expense of big corporations. The senator most responsible for pushing through airline deregulation was Kennedy's uncle Ted. The staffer who did the most important legwork on the Kennedy-led Senate hearings was a guy who would later become a liberal Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer. The most famous consumer advocate in favor of decontrol was Ralph Nader. And above them all stood a liberal president.
"I share the basic beliefs of my region [against] an excessive government intrusion into the private affairs of American citizens and also into the private affairs of the free enterprise system," Jimmy Carter said in his one and only presidential debate with the man liberals now blame for deregulation, Ronald Reagan. "One of the commitments that I made was to deregulate the major industries of this country. We've been remarkably successful, with the help of a Democratic Congress. We have deregulated the air industry, the rail industry, the trucking industry, financial institutions. We're now working on the communications industry."
If only there were Republicans, let alone Democrats, who were as deregulatory in 2011 as Jimmy Carter was in 1978.
Matt Welch (email@example.com) is editor in chief of reason.
* This article originally misidentified the date of Dred Scott v. Sandford.