In my family, December 2nd has long held special memories, good and bad. This day in 1950 marked the birth of my brother Stuart. He was born with a condition that was only diagnosed years later as Prader-Willi. He died a year ago last spring at the age of 61, having lived twice as long as doctors expected. In 1968 on this day, my father died after a horrific fight with cancer. In 1945, with the 10th Mountain Division, he had battled German mountain troops holed up on Mt. Belvedere in Italy’s Apennines and then chased them across the Po River Valley to Lake Garda where they finally surrendered. But he was unable to survive a more personal battle with one of nature’s most dreadful diseases. His cancer had begun in his lungs and then spread to his brain.
He died at age 58. My mother died, either late on the 2nd of December 1990, or early the next day. No one knows for certain. However, the day had been a busy one, as was her wont. She gave a riding lesson in the morning, wrote to my youngest brother, George, and spoke on the phone with her childhood friend, Jean Kaiser. She died peacefully, in her sleep at age 79. Seven years later, December 2nd was my eldest sister’s last full day. She, too, succumbed to the ravages of cancer – breast cancer which had metastasized to her bones. She died on the morning of December 3rd, 1997, at age 58.
During the Holidays such memories are important. We are reminded of what we have lost, but also of all that which we should be thankful – our spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, extended families and friends. We should also think of those liberties we have as Americans. As much as anything, we should be grateful for having the fortune to have been born in this country. Its republican/democratic tradition of individual liberty and free-market capitalism has permitted us to live in unprecedented freedom and has allowed our living standards to soar beyond what anyone could have expected a half-century ago. We tend to take for granted such rights and freedoms as the rule of law, the right to own and dispose of property and economic mobility. Despite its critics, both from within and without, the United States remains the last, best hope of mankind. But it is also important to reflect on its fragility.
America is far from perfect, but no person, place or country is. Other than the institution of slavery, which persisted during its first seventy-four years of existence, the United States has never been a place that needed to be “fundamentally” transformed. In the December issue of The Spectator, Benjamin Stein wrote a beautiful sentiment about America: “I cannot explain all of the Lord’s dispensations for me. I can only say that America is the greatest gift of all time, and I am on my knees with gratitude for it every moment of every day.” Does that mean we have reached some sort of Nirvana? Of course not! We all have faults, including our country, but they must be put in perspective. Very few of us would ever be able to “cast the first stone.” I know I could not! Bad men and women sometimes ascend to positions of power. But on balance, we are in a fortunate place.
It is in the nature of man to persistently strive to better himself, both individually and for what we can do for those less fortunate around us – what we can do for our communities. The key word is “individual,” which connotes a sense of personal independence and self-reliance, characteristics necessary for a free and liberal society. It does not take a “community” to raise a child or build a business. It does, though, take individuals to build families, communities and businesses. Families bind us together and give meaning to our lives. Communities are instrumental to our growth as societies and to our overall well-being. And businesses allow us to prosper. Civil society demands rules and laws that must be fair and must be obeyed, which is where government steps in. However, with such close ties between business and government, we must be wary of cronyism, which feeds politicians while destroying competition, thereby hurting consumers. Like families that are responsible for one another, businesses are obligated to owners, employees and customers. And government is composed of individuals who are responsible to the people they represent.
My parents were determined to be self-sufficient, living as artists, close to the land, while raising nine children. Both my parents grew up in relatively wealthy households, though my mother’s father had lost his money during the Great Depression. My father’s family would help out when necessary, but they did not interfere with the life-style my parents had chosen, no matter how different it was from their own. As children, while there was a natural tendency to associate with those closest in age, we were raised as a band of brothers and sisters, each unique in his or her way. I learned early on that we would be responsible for the choices we made – good or bad. One’s behavior, we came to understand, had consequences. I also learned (though this took me a few years) that you should strive to be the best in whatever you attempt – a lesson my wife and I have passed on to our children.
These thoughts came to mind, as I thought of how different the Obama Administration is in the lessons they teach. Most frightening to me, in terms of what it means to the future of my grandchildren, is the emphasis on government dependency. While the precepts of the Obama Administration may be well-intended, the over-all consequences are dire. There are, of course, some people who must be dependent on government – the old and sick who have no means of their own – but, when extended to those who have both means and health, but lack willingness to care for themselves, we risk slipping down an insidious slide toward tyranny. That may sound hyperbolic, but keep in mind, whenever we ask government to assume one more responsibility we lose an element of individual liberty. And, the quest for power is unquenchable. It is in the DNA of politicians. The more power over our lives we hand to government, the more power they will demand. This is not to say we do not need government and regulation. We do. It is only a question of degree.
There are few things in our lives more fundamental to our well-being than our health. It behooves us to live as healthy as possible. Can one honestly claim that a government bureaucrat is able to pick a better health plan than we can? Should that same bureaucrat decide what doctors we can see or what hospitals we can go to? The essential problem with ObamaCare is that it ignores the consumer, embedded in Warren Buffet’s “Mr. Market.” An artificial system, designed by the world’s most brilliant engineers, can never replicate the free flow of services and products that is the experience of millions of people in tens of millions of transactions. It is the latter that determines best price. In his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974, Friedrich Hayek addressed this same concept, referring to it as a “communication system.” “…the functioning of an advanced industrial society is based [on] a communication system which we call the market, and which turns out to be a more efficient mechanism for digesting dispersed information than any that man has deliberately designed.”
There are two legitimate problems with healthcare that the Obama Administration highlighted. First, there are between thirty and forty million Americans with no healthcare insurance and, second, there was the problem of people with pre-existing conditions who had had policies cancelled or who had been unable to purchase health insurance. Both problems must be addressed. The second may require legislation mandating that insurance companies provide such coverage. The costs of doing so would be reflected in higher premiums, or with some sort of government assistance. The first are comprised of two basic groups: those who did not want insurance (young, healthy, single adults who felt themselves – erroneously of course – immune from major illnesses or accidents), and those too poor to afford insurance, but too rich to qualify for Medicaid. What ObamaCare did not address – and in fact made worse – was the essential fact that employer-based insurance – first offered in the years following the Second World War – removed the consumer from pricing and services, which was a major reason for the problem. Since healthcare was “free,” it made no sense to shop around. Any solution should be consumer-centric, both in terms of insurance and medical care, rather than being employer or government-centric. There was also the gross unfairness that those in the individual market had to pay insurance premiums with after-tax dollars, while the employer-market paid premiums with pre-tax dollars. Additionally, the Obama Plan did nothing about tort reform – an enormous cost that gets passed on to consumers.
Obamacare demands that all four levels of insurance (bronze, silver, gold and platinum) include coverage for such procedures as pediatric care, preventive checkups and birth control. Personal needs or preferences were not considered. Those who are young, single, healthy and with good incomes are required to buy a more expensive, low-deductible plan, instead of purchasing a less expensive, high-deductible plan that would protect them against catastrophic incidents. Middle-aged couples are required to buy pediatric coverage, despite no intention of having children. The private insurance market seems to work well in the auto and housing arenas. Why wouldn’t the market work well in terms of healthcare insurance? Individuals generally make decisions that are in their best interest. Pounding square pegs into round holes is an exercise in futility.
Every day, the unintended consequences of ObamaCare become more obvious. An “objectively inferior medical product,” as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, is the consequence of government-imposed mandates and rules with which insurers must comply. The best scientist in the world cannot straighten the natural arc in a beam of light. Government cannot change the behavior of people to the consequences of a mandated program so large and as complex as ObamaCare. They cannot even anticipate reactions. Markets, which have no political agenda, do a better job. They may need a nudge, but not a shove.
But, more fearful in my opinion is the idea of letting government slip surreptitiously into our lives, making us increasingly dependent on “Big Brother.” While cynicism is not my natural condition, one cannot be immune to the possibility that the problems with the ObamaCare website are deliberate – a red herring, as one reader suggested – to force all Americans into a single-payer system! While we all recognize that government plays a necessary role in our lives (and that there are those whose needs are such that they are dependent) a society loses its health and its vigor when government decreases personal responsibility by increasing dependency. It loses much more. It becomes less free. That is the takeaway I have when I think of this day, remembering the lessons learned from those I knew, whose lives began and ended on this day.
“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
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