Boston Commons

by Don Boudreaux on November 29, 2013

in Health, History, Other People's Money, Property Rights, Reality Is Not Optional

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

Regarding your report “Medicaid Growth Could Aggravate Doctor Shortage” (Nov. 29):

In 1623 the settlers of Plymouth Plantation abandoned their practice of allowing everyone to enjoy, as common property, the fruits of each other’s labor.  Gov. William Bradford reported that the result was a remarkable escape from the annual risk of starvation.  The institution of private property, and its corresponding requirement that each person pay for what he or she consumes, prompted more responsible consumption as well as a greater outpouring of productive efforts.

This historical experience contains a lesson for health care.  The problems highlighted in your report – a surge in health-care consumption along with a shortage of health-care resources – is a predictable result of turning health care into a common-property resource.  Consumers have fewer incentives to consume it wisely while physicians and other health-care providers have fewer incentives to supply it in quantities sufficient to meet all of the demands for their services.

It sounds noble to many modern ears that health care should be supplied as a ‘right.’  It likewise sounded noble to the Pilgrims’ ears that food should be supplied as a ‘right.’  But noble intentions are no substitute for proper economic incentives.  Just as the Pilgrims’ experiment with supplying food as a ‘right’ failed, so, too, will our effort to supply health care as a ‘right’ fail.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

The failure can be masked.  Long waits for medical treatments, forgone innovation, arbitrary rules to ration medical-care resources – these and similarly unfortunate outcomes are either easily missed by those not looking for them or are blamed on forces other than the collectivization of health-care provision.  But as I’ve said before here at the Cafe, free-riding is not transformed from a bug into a feature just because it is mandated by government.

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