As an American, I am embarrassed that the U.S. House of Representatives has 220 members who actually believe the government can successfully centrally plan the medical and insurance industries.
I'm embarrassed that my representatives think that government can subsidize the consumption of medical care without increasing the budget deficit or interfering with free choice.
It's a triumph of mindless wishful thinking over logic and experience.
The 1,990-page bill is breathtaking in its bone-headed audacity. The notion that a small group of politicians can know enough to design something so complex and so personal is astounding. That they were advised by "experts" means nothing since no one is expert enough to do that. There are too many tradeoffs faced by unique individuals with infinitely varying needs.
Government cannot do simple things efficiently. The bureaucrats struggle to count votes correctly. They give subsidized loans to "homeowners" who turn out to be 4-year-olds. Yet congressmen want government to manage our medicine and insurance.
Competition is a "discovery procedure," Nobel-prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek taught. Through the competitive market process, we producers and consumers constantly learn things that force us to adjust our behavior if we are to succeed. Central planners fail for two reasons:
First, knowledge about supply, demand, individual preferences and resource availability is scattered—much of it never articulated—throughout society. It is not concentrated in a database where a group of planners can access it.
Second, this "data" is dynamic: It changes without notice.
No matter how honorable the central planners' intentions, they will fail because they cannot know the needs and wishes of 300 million different people. And if they somehow did know their needs, they wouldn't know them tomorrow.
Proponents of so-called reform—it's not really reform unless it makes things better—have shamefully avoided criticism of their proposals. Often they just dismiss their opponents as greedy corporate apologists or paranoid right-wing loonies. That's easier than answering questions like these:
1) How can the government subsidize the purchase of medical services without driving up prices? Econ 101 teaches—without controversy—that when demand goes up, if other things remain equal, price goes up. The politicians want to have their cake and eat it, too.
2) How can the government promise lower medical costs without restricting choices? Medicare already does that. Once the planners' mandatory insurance pushes prices to new heights, they must put even tougher limits on what we may buy—or their budget will be even deeper in the red than it already is. As economist Thomas Sowell points out, government cannot really reduce costs. All it can do is disguise and shift costs (through taxation) and refuse to pay for some services (rationing).
3) How does government "create choice" by imposing uniformity on insurers? Uniformity limits choice. Under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's bill and the Senate versions, government would dictate to all insurers what their "minimum" coverage policy must include. Truly basic high-deductible, low-cost catastrophic policies tailored to individual needs would be forbidden.
4) How does it "create choice" by making insurance companies compete against a privileged government-sponsored program? The so-called government option, let's call it Fannie Med, would have implicit government backing and therefore little market discipline. The resulting environment of conformity and government power is not what I mean by choice and competition. Rep. Barney Frank is at least honest enough to say that the public option will bring us a government monopoly.
Advocates of government control want you to believe that the serious shortcomings of our medical and insurance system are failures of the free market. But that's impossible because our market is not free. Each state operates a cozy medical and insurance cartel that restricts competition through licensing and keeps prices higher than they would be in a genuine free market. But the planners won't talk about that. After all, if government is the problem in the first place, how can they justify a government takeover?
Many people are priced out of the medical and insurance markets for one reason: the politicians' refusal to give up power. Allowing them to seize another 16 percent of the economy won't solve our problems.
John Stossel will soon host Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. This column first appeared at Reason.com.
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