When I began my training in pediatrics in the 1970s, most children diagnosed with cancer did not survive. Today, the vast majority of children diagnosed with cancer are cured.

I pulled out and juxtaposed for effect the above two sentences, which appear at different points within the introduction to the latest issue of Stanford Medicine Magazine. The author was Standford University’s Dean of Medicine, Dr. Phil Pizzo.

This wasn’t the point of Phil’s article, but ask yourself: How did our country manage to move from the situation described in his first sentence to that described in the second? Who should we thank for taking us from a point where an oncologist could say to terrified parents “It’s cancer, but we can probably cure your child” versus “It’s cancer, your child is probably going to die”?

The U.S. federal government, that’s who.

You mean the free market didn’t transform pediatric oncology? No, it didn’t. There are many brilliant medical scientists in the private sector and I have always given them credit for their life-saving work. But plowing billions of research and development dollars into improving the care of uninsured patients is not good business.

“What are you talking about?”, a government critic might respond, “most children are covered by health insurance”. This is true: With government provided Medicaid, government provided SCHIP and a government provided tax break on employee’s family health insurance coverage, most children indeed have insurance. Without the assurance of a market provided by those federal programs and policies, private sector companies would never invest in research on rare childhood diseases.

But even the government’s expansion of health insurance for children didn’t lead the private sector to fully fund research on cures for children’s cancer. But that was okay, because the National Cancer Institute was there to pour billions of dollars into cancer research until cures were found.

Don’t all those brilliant scientists and clinicians deserve credit? Of course they do, as do the federal loans and state government support that gave many of them the education to maximize their brilliance and built the labs and hospitals in which they did their work.

The audience members at the recent Republican candidate’s debate who applauded at the thought of uninsured people dying may well cheer on the idea of getting the meddling government out of the way so that children with cancer could be free to die early, excruciating deaths. But when the value of medical science is raised with government-bashing candidates for office, their usual response is something along the lines of “of course I wouldn’t cut cancer research.” One wonders therefore why they don’t make sure to always say so rather than demonizing “guvmint” whole cloth. And why don’t journalists, every single time, when candidates trash the federal government as universally interfering and incompetent, ask them why they want to live in a society where more parents attend their son or daughter’s funeral instead of their high school graduation?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.