Elon Musk buying Twitter because, in his words, “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy” is just the latest example of a rich and powerful entrepreneur making it seem like entrepreneurs are the only people doing anything good for the world.
Contary to what Musk says (as well as Trump, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates, and so many of the other loudest voices in the room), the government—through public goods and services—does the lion’s share of keeping us all safe, making sure we have clean water, educating our children, spurring innovation, and so much more.
(By the way, Musk doesn’t really care about democracy. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about his idea to charge a monthly fee for certain users: “Lmao at a billionaire earnestly trying to sell people on the idea that ‘free speech’ is actually a $8/mo subscription plan.” And use of the N-word racial epithet skyrocketed by over 500 percent after the purchase became official.)
As economist Mariana Mazzucato famously pointed out, “Everything you can do with an iPhone was government-funded. From the internet that allows you to surf the web, to GPS that lets you use Google Maps, to touch screen display, and even the SIRI voice activated system—all of these things were funded by Uncle Sam.”
A great example that we are all relying on right now is the Covid-19 vaccine.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently published a blog on the decades of research and development that went into the vaccine’s mRNA technology. They write, “Clinical trials for the vaccines in people were established in what seemed like record time. But in reality, more than 50 years of public and private laboratory research laid the groundwork for the rapid development of these life-saving vaccines.”
Here are just some of the many twists and turns that involved the government and public money:
- 1987: NIH launched the HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Networks, which established a framework for future responses to other viruses and infectious diseases, including Covid-19
- 1990s: Congress and NIH set aside 10 percent of NIH’s yearly budget for HIV/AIDS research, funding that helped in understanding other viruses
- 2013: NIH scientists discover the structure of virus proteins that let viruses invade cells, leading to the creation of the first stabilized proteins for use in vaccines
- 2017: NIH scientists stabilize the spike protein that MERS uses to invade cells, allowing researchers to better understand how to build an effective vaccine against coronaviruses.
- January 2020: Chinese scientists share the first genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with the NIH database GenBank.
- March 2020: NIH clinical trials for the Moderna mRNA vaccine begin.
- December 2020: The FDA grants an emergency use authorization to the Moderna mRNA vaccine for people age 18 and older
On top of all of that, Moderna’s vaccine was funded 100 percent through Operation Warp Speed, a federal government program. Pfizer-BioNTech’s relied on public money from the German government.
Sure, Musk can buy a social media company that hasn’t turned a profit for eight of the past 10 years. But could he singlehandedly save millions of lives, prevented tens of millions of hospitalizations, and saved nearly $900 billion in health care costs?
The answer is a flat-out “no.” Public health is public for a reason. We have to do it together, for the benefit of all of us—not so billionaires can buy more yachts and vacation homes.
With experts warning of a looming “tripledemic”—Covid-19, the flu, and the lesser-known respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV—we should take a moment to appreciate just how far the government has been going to keep us safe.
Photo by Haddad Media.