All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1995

Live Freely, Live Longer

Decisions About Our Health and Longevity Belong to Us

Mr. More is editor of Extropy and President of Extropy Institute. He has studied at Oxford University and is currently completing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California.

The founders of the United States valued “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Life–healthy and long life–makes possible everything else we value. Without life we cannot enjoy liberty or pursue happiness. It’s also true that without liberty–freedom from government and bureaucratic control—we will have shorter lives, and poorer health while we live. If we do away with the government’s growing control over research into life extension and its treatments, we’ll see faster progress towards the longest, healthiest lives ever enjoyed by humans.

Extending Healthy Life

We humans have long dreamed of preventing aging and its associated diseases. As molecular biology has matured over recent decades, the dream shows growing signs of becoming reality. Methods already exist for extending healthy human life to 120 or 140 years, though currently this involves a tough low-calorie diet. Potential life-extending substances are being studied, and we are beginning to find aging controls in our genes. If we can master these, we may be able to prevent and reverse aging, allowing all of us to remain physically and mentally vital.

Even today, various nutrients, drugs, hormones, and diets may be able to halt or slow aspects of the aging process. Drugs such as Deprenyl and Hydergine reportedly slow the rate of brain aging, helping to maintain youthful sharpness and quickness of thought. The hormone DHEA is thought to assist in keeping body fat at youthful levels and strengthens the vulnerable immune systems of older people. Substances such as melatonin and thymosin may also help in the fight against aging. Reports indicate that elderly volunteers given human growth hormone gained considerable muscle mass and strength, their skin thickened, and their immune systems partially returned to their youthful power.

As we continue to unravel the complexities of our genetic code at an accelerating rate, we may find ways to intervene in programmed cellular death. This cellular death has prevented even the healthiest human beings from living more than 120 years. In principle, nothing stands in the way of our being able to intervene in this biological process. We just need more understanding and better interventive technology.

What of those who will not live long enough to see these dramatic advances? Even they may have a chance. In the practice of “cryonics,” as soon as a person has been declared legally dead (while practically all of their cells are yet alive), the body is filled with protective chemicals and gradually cooled to extremely low temperatures. At the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-320ºF) all biological activity halts. The person can then wait for years, until cures have been found both for what killed him and for the aging process itself. The workability of cryonics is controversial, but even in its current state of development it may offer a chance of postponing our old enemy, death.

Try to extend your lifespan through medical technology and you’ll quickly discover that the government acts as though it owns your life. If we each individually own our bodies and minds, you would think we would be free to evaluate any longevity-extending treatments, and assume the accompanying risk and responsibility. Yet government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and groups with government-granted privileges (such as state-licensed M.D.s, whose lobbying group is the American Medical Association), claim the authority to make our choices for us. They treat us as children, constantly needing the protection of the nanny State. Not only does this insult us, but government control, compared to free choice in free markets, does badly at encouraging new and effective life extension technologies.

The Government Chokehold

Government involvement in life extension means both funding and regulation. Research funding by the state means funding by taxation. Two major problems arise from tax-funding of life extension research. First, since taxes are compulsory, unlike consumer purchases or venture capital investments, the recipients have little incentive to perform well. If your company is funded by taxes, you need not be so concerned with cost-effectiveness (remember the $500 military screwdriver?). With money coming not from customers but from taxpayers via the political system, you needn’t worry about whether your proposed product is cost-effective. Second, since state funding is brokered by politicians, it will reflect the strength of interest groups and lobbying skills. These have little connection to the most promising research.

Whenever the state involves itself, decisions become centralized and heavily regulated. Progress in halting aging slows as politicians and interest groups block some kinds of research. Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends, for example, has used the government to try to prevent various kinds of biotech research. On the free market, any peaceful idea can find funding and proceed if it shows sufficient promise, but in a politically controlled regime new ideas have to fight entrenched interests and their political allies sitting on numerous committees and regulatory agencies.

Much regulation in the life extension arena comes from the FDA. Other civilized countries get by just fine without any equivalent to this agency, and enjoy access to thousands of beneficial drugs and treatments years before Americans. For ten years following 1962 (when the FDA gained new powers), not one of the hypertension drugs available in Europe was approved in the United States. The delay before introducing beta blockers may have resulted in 10,000 unnecessary deaths annually. To develop, test, and gain approval of a new drug, companies must spend hundreds of millions of dollars and wait eight to ten years. Since 1962, the cost of developing new drugs has increased 50 times faster than inflation and approval time has quadrupled.[1] This isn’t likely to change: Regulators tend to be over-tough because if they approve a drug that later causes problems, the blame falls on them. They receive no balancing benefit from rapid approval.[2]

The FDA started out small with limited powers, but has grown enormously. Currently it’s attempting to make vitamins and protein components (amino acids) into prescription items. A few years ago, when one Japanese manufacturer produced contaminated supplies of the amino acid tryptophan, the FDA seized the chance to ban all sales of tryptophan. This supposedly temporary action has never been reversed. As a result, many thousands of people with sleeping and mood problems have gone back to using far more dangerous tranquilizers, some dying of accidental overdoses or suffering side effects.

The FDA uses SWAT-style raids on vitamin suppliers who dare to offer “unapproved” information about products they sell. The FDA has been working towards establishing a monopoly on information about drugs and nutrients. If you make claims (no matter how well scientifically supported) that the FDA hasn’t sanctioned, you may find yourself held at gunpoint while your office is stripped. FDA agents even threatened to shut down a newsletter printer for the Life Extension Foundation, an organization frequently critical of the agency.

Some problems caused by the FDA and other agencies come from an unwillingness to recognize life extension as a legitimate aim of medicine. According to the prevailing medical view, enforced by the privileged medical establishment in league with the FDA, medicine should cure disease but not improve our health or capabilities beyond what’s normal. Treatments which may allow us to live longer, or better than normal, are not even candidates for approval. A possibly life-saving practice as unusual as cryonics has even more difficulties with the state. Cryonics has been banned outright in British Columbia, while California agencies did all in their power to make it impossible for cryonics organizations to operate. (The government bureaucrats finally lost in the courts.) Terminal patients may not legally be cryonically suspended voluntarily before clinical death, even though this may greatly improve their chances of eventual restoration to life.

Freer Markets, Longer Lives

The more involved government becomes in life extension research and development, the slower such research proceeds and the more it costs. If we allow the free market to operate, subject only to reasonable liability rules rather than bureaucratic regulations and political maneuvers, innovation will accelerate. When people are free they can experiment in many directions simultaneously. Companies can more quickly offer the results of their research to customers. The incentive to bring products quickly to market will be balanced by caution due to liability for inadequate testing.

Rather than all treatments having to conform to state-approved levels of safety, individuals will be free to decide for themselves how much to risk for the expected benefits. We own our lives and are responsible for them. Decisions about our health and longevity belong to us, not to politicians and bureaucrats who don’t know us. The more Americans are shielded from making their own decisions like infants, the more irresponsible and helpless they will become. Granted more freedom, we will also gain more responsibility. Some of the products tried by even well-informed people in a free market may be ineffective or harmful. But progress requires trial and error, and a system that restricts experimentation restricts the growth of knowledge.

Each of us is faced with the difficult challenges of aging and death. Let’s not let the state reinforce the death-dealing tendencies of nature by restraining human intelligence from tackling the problem of degenerative aging.

1.   See Milton Friedman, Free To Choose (Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990), p. 206.

2.   Sam Peltzman, “Regulation of Pharmaceutical Innovation” (Washington, D.C.,: American Enterprise Institute, 1974).