01 January 2008|
Land of the Free
Giving America's consumerist culture free health care is foolish
It is unquestionable that America is a consumerist culture. This position is hardly exclusive to the screeds of anti-capitalist leftists; it is a reality that manifests itself in the daily life in our nation. The law of demand, of course, states that a lower price induces higher consumption. Americans give themselves this economics lesson on a daily basis as they obligingly demonstrate their insatiable appetite for all things cheap, and most of all, all things free.
The free sample is perhaps the crown jewel of business' recognition of American consumerism. Here is our product, says ABC Corporation. We're going to offer it for free because we know you'll try it if it's free. And how right they are. The great mass of American consumers wilfully and voraciously snap up these products that are offered free of charge. Why not?
But the product doesn't really have to be free for Americans to scoop it up. The people just have to think it's free. Another highly successful selling technique is the "free gift," offered on items from perfume, a product already sold with extortionate markup, to cars, where dealerships lure customers with something "free" worth $500 while the consumer pays the same company in the same transaction $40,000. The "free gift", obviously, isn't free, but neither is anything the federal government gives you as a "free gift". American consumers just don't care. We live for something-for-nothing, even if the bargain is entirely fabricated in our own minds.
In areas other than shopping, the same principle remains true. Parents and students are often willing to make decisions on colleges by virtue of which one of them gives a full scholarship (and is thus "free"). Three million Americans were content to chill out on welfare, (America's ultimate "free gift") despite being plenty able to work.
The impact of consumerism isn't confined to bargain-hunting. Americans also have flaunted their consumptionist attitudes in their utter disregard for the frugal use of energy and other highly necessary goods. Demand for fossil fuels rages apace, and America shows negligible interest in giving up the automobile anytime soon. Americans also barely bother to turn the lights off when they leave the house, or even turn the faucet off when they are not using it.
If America were to implement universal health coverage for its citizens, these well-known characteristics of American behavior would end up destroying the very system we rightly deem so necessary for all. The free (or very cheap) provision of health care would persuade many Americans to excessively use the system, increasing doctor and hospital visits, and increasing complaints for more trivial conditions.
It will happen, as certainly as the "free gift" will continue to enamor and attract millions of mall shoppers. It is ironic, in the end, that the very liberals who deride the consumptionist American culture craft policies, such as universal health coverage, that require that we all pretend that America actually isn't a consumptionalist culture.
But we are, and so we would dangerously over-consume health care if we all could get it for free. The most obvious, and empirically verified consequence of this over-consumption would be overcrowding, including waiting lists for medical procedures, rationing, and other unfortunate effects. In Great Britain, whose NHS provides free health care, 36% of patients have to wait more than four months for surgery. In Canada, another health care gift giver, the figure is 27%. In the US, it's 5%.
Another unfortunate consequence of this excess demand would be that resources, such as doctors, medical research, and staff allocation, would get shifted toward the new flood of needless doctor visits and medical consumption. Those with unique or life-threatening afflictions would lose out the most. The most innovative health care system in the world would be hobbled, forced to spend a disproportionate amount of its time diagnosing runny noses and sore throats.
Despite these gigantic shortcomings, it is hardly surprising that the idea of universal health insurance remains relatively popular. The American consumptionist instinct, as mentioned, runs very deep in the national ethic. The prospect of the free gift of health care for everyone naturally sounds good. It's impossible to expect everyone to like paying for health care. But everyone must realize why they need to.
The above work is the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of the Prometheus Institute.