“Could you patent the sun?” – Dr. Jonas Salk
Only in L.A. – where people live in their cars – was it possible to get vaccinated against polio at a drive-thru clinic circa 1960. I have no idea whether patrons could order fries and a shake with that, but I’m certain the clinic saved lives. And the vaccine itself was free.
Which brings us – on this MLK holiday – to the subject of altruism. Which is a noun. And which is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was familiar with the concept. And I suppose you can argue that his civil-rights work on behalf of others wasn’t entirely disinterested, since he was fighting for his own civil rights as well. But King had expanded his moral charter in the 1960s to include opposition to the war in Vietnam. And on the day he was murdered, he was fighting for garbage collectors in Memphis, putting his life on the line so that they could have a living wage. And dignity.
Dr. Jonas Salk spent seven years developing a polio vaccine, which was donated to the world in 1955 and which has saved countless lives and limbs. Including any number saved because the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis didn’t waste time applying for a patent or trying to figure out the best ways to profit from saving lives. When asked in a TV interview who owned the vaccine, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
You will sometimes read in rightwing journals that lawyers for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis looked into the possibility of a patent (with the implication that they would have made money from it if they could), but Dr. Salk had already provided the vaccine to pharmaceutical companies and the idea of a patent was merely to protect against inferior imitations that others might try to profit from. Decades before Salk, Dr. William Roentgen had also refused to patent the sun – or, in his case, X-rays – and altruistically donated his new medical technology to the world.
Paul Ryan & Friends (inspired by their patron saint, Ayn Rand) will tell you altruism is for suckers. Or that it’s just a different form of selfishness, since giving to others and helping humankind provides the giver with pleasure. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang around folks being “selfish” by helping their neighbors or fighting for people’s rights or curing disease than hang around a bunch of GOP pols getting their jollies by cutting food stamps, gutting public education, trying to privatize Social Security, or making a big show of voting down the Affordable Care Act for the one-millionth time.
I wish there was a vaccine against Ryan & Friends. And a drive-thru clinic where Americans could get it. I’d be willing to pay – a lot – for that one. And you can hold the fries and shake.