TCS Daily

Should We Fear 'Cosmetic Neurology'

By James D. Miller - October 29, 2004 12:00 AM

"Improve a mechanical device and you may double productivity. But improve man, you gain a thousand fold."

-- Khan Noonien Singh (Star Trek, the original series episode "Space Seed")

Although genetically enhanced supermen are still a while off, our economy may be forever altered by cognitive enhancing drugs. A neurology professor believes we may soon enter an era of "cosmetic neurology" in which doctors prescribe drugs to improve the mental fitness of healthy individuals.

Drugs such as steroids, which boost the physical prowess of already fit athletes, create headaches for professional sports. Although we should seek to stop athletes from enhancing their performance pharmaceutically, we should let individuals decided whether to artificially boost their own brainpower.

It's tempting to argue that steroids are wrong because they give users unnatural advantages, and that since cognitive enhancers do likewise they too are wrong and should also be banned. But if the performance of all athletes were to improve by 20% we wouldn't become 20% better off, because the relative performance of athletes is what really matters to fans. Furthermore, if just a few teams or players used steroids then games would become less competitive and so less exciting. In contrast, for most of the economy absolute performance is what counts. If, for example, we improved the productivity of all cancer researchers, software engineers and teachers by 20%, then society would indeed benefit greatly.

Cognitive enhancers, like steroids, might have negative side effects. Some people might worry that if they don't use the enhancers but everyone else does then they won't be able to compete, but if they do use the drugs they will suffer ill health effects, so "cosmetic neurology" offers a lose-lose proposition. But labor markets would compensate users for the negative effects of the drugs and so would leave few users worse off: workers who took cognitive enhancers would do better at their jobs and so get paid more. Furthermore, they would take the drugs only if the extra pay was worth the increased health risks.

Employees who didn't take cognitive enhancers would get paid less than those who did, but would still probably make more than they would in a world without "cosmetic neurology". Productivity growth powers our economy. If drugs could improve the rate at which many of us learn they would supercharge our knowledge economy and so benefit even those who forwent pharmaceutical enhancements.

Although I have no empirical evidence, I strongly believe that the widespread use of antidepressant drugs like Prozac has increased U.S. productivity. Prozac, by reducing depression and anxiety, makes it easier for many Americans to concentrate on productive activities. A cognitive enhancing drug that could raise its users' IQ by 10 points or give the average American a photographic memory would literally be worth trillions of dollars to our knowledge economy.

Fortunately, the U.S. will be politically unable to ban effective cognitive enhancers for long because countries such as China and Singapore will almost certainly encourage their use. The U.S. economy currently benefits from an international brain gain because the best and the brightest desire America's freedom. But if our government prevents Americans' brains from reaching their admittedly unnatural maximum then the world's intellectual elite would seek friendlier shores. After all, if your dream in life is to cure cancer and only in Singapore can you use a drug that raises your IQ by 10 points, wouldn't you emigrate?

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is a Republican candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate.


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