Can a merciless marketplace be entrusted with caring for people?
Some things should not be left to the open market to decide, like healthcare for all. The market is an indifferent player in the realm of human beings, living creatures with emotions and vested interests that come into play on individual and communal scales. Some economists (F.A. Hayek comes to mind) and commentators have placed their trust in the inherent ‘wisdom’ of the marketplace, which they believe can correct all wrongs, if only given the chance. While this may be true, depending on the prism you happen to be viewing the market through, the free market economy is by no means benevolent in its judgments. Sometimes, when it comes to efficiency and generating profit, it’s better for a particular industry (35mm film shops, newspaper classified ads, video stores), or an entire sector to die.
Economics and market activity, in many ways, can be looked upon as a simple, or complex game. Winners and losers alike try to create a successful business, and fight off competitors, given the rules and economic theories surrounding the game. While some players may cheat, others rely upon automation, efficiency, sound business practices, a superior product, cheap labor, offshoring, innovative ideas and a host of other tools to ‘win’ the game. Substantial competition in a more or less fair marketplace makes for a competitive and robust economy. That having been said, some services simply shouldn’t be based upon a strict adherence to a model based upon maximizing profits.
When your house is on fire, and every house in your neighbor is burning as well, would it be appropriate for the firemen on the scene to ask you how much you’d be willing to pay for them to douse the blaze? Imagine if they only rendered services to the highest bidder, and let everyone else’s property and families go up in flames. After the floodwaters have come, should rescue workers check on your ability to pay for help before pulling you off your roof? What if they declined to lend you a hand because you had a small child with expensive medical requirements, and by their calculations, it would be far more profitable to dump you and help someone else instead? In times of crisis, the needs of the community should trump profit-based incentives. Of course firemen, rescue workers and police officers should make reasonable salaries (everyone needs a motivation to work), but their specific services should not be dictated by the open market.
This brings me to the never-ending healthcare debate that has plagued the United States for so long. Should taking care of the sick and providing preventative medicine be a community right, like the police protection we all enjoy, a personal responsibility, or a privilege that comes in the form of company benefits? If the market were to solely dictate the bottom line, then it would clearly be more profitable to let certain people die, like the uninsured who show up at hospital trauma units with life threatening injuries, or the children of the poor with conditions and diseases that take a lot of money to treat and cure.
A healthy country makes for a better country. Access to decent healthcare is a pivotal part of that equation. When people no longer have to worry about expensive medical bills, or can unlock the handcuffs that have held them to bad jobs because they were afraid of losing their benefits, they’re freer to pursue better career options, retrain if their particular industry becomes obsolete, and continue to contribute to an evolving society.
Is universal healthcare costly and open to abuse? Absolutely, just like many other public services we take for granted, but it beats letting people riddled with disease and debt fall by the wayside. Our health and the health of our neighbors affect everything we do, as well as the things we leave undone. Hospital bills don’t usually disappear after someone has departed this earth.
I’ve lived in several different countries in my life. All of them have had a national healthcare service of one kind or another. Sometimes people ask me about the costs of those systems, or the long lines and waiting times people have to endure in order to see a doctor. While I’m no expert on the matter, I have to admit that yes, some of those services take a hefty bite out of the fiscal budget, and people with moderate complaints (emergency services are still treated like emergencies) often have wait to see a doctor. I have yet to come upon the perfect system, but still, everyone is offered access to treatment in the end, despite the bureaucracy and the wait, which is a hell of a lot better than dealing with a lingering illness, or dying from medical neglect.
Most, if not all, of these countries also have private hospitals and private insurance. That’s a fact that many pundits who are against state run healthcare often skip over. If you want to pay and avoid the hassles of the public system, you can, but due to the competition coming from the public sector, you probably won’t have to pay the premium rates so common in the United States. You could compare these two options to the military and war. A general can make use of an army comprised of professional soldiers paid for and recruited by the state, or else employ of a bunch of highly paid mercenaries to achieve his objectives. Both groups might get the job done, but they would manage risk and operate in very different ways.
We shell out tax dollars and pay people to fight crime, fires, natural disasters and foreign wars, thus keeping us safe from harm. Doesn’t it make sense, no matter how flawed the system might be (although we should always strive to make it better), that as a society we should set some funds aside for healthcare and protect our investments in human capital, which is vital to the health and the future of the country?
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