An Inconsistency

by Don Boudreaux on November 23, 2021

in Health, Philosophy of Freedom

My oh my, doesn’t government-run health care – in this case, Britain’s sainted National Health Service – work splendidly?! Here’s the headline in the Times of London:

NHS waiting list hits record 6m… and it’s only going to get worse


Imagine, for the purpose of this post, that Covid-19 is a disease that would have overwhelmed any health-care system that is humanly possible. Imagine also an alternative universe in which Britain had no NHS but, instead, relied for its citizens’ health-care provision exclusively on free-market forces. What would the reaction of intellectuals be to reports of this free-market health-care system encountering the problems that are now, in reality, being encountered by the NHS? Is there any doubt that these problems would be trumpeted as indisputable evidence that free-market health care is unworkable – a failure – a curse and danger to humanity – conclusive proof that governments should nationalize health-care provision, or at least play a much more active role in this provision?

So why are the problems now, in reality, confronting the NHS not taken as strong evidence – or at least as offering a plausible case – that government-supplied health-care is a curse and danger to humanity, and in particular that the NHS should be abolished and market forces allowed to play a much greater role in the provision of health-care?

Note that my argument here is not that market forces would have handled Covid better than did the NHS (although I have no doubt that they would have indeed done so). Instead, my argument is that there is a double standard: Problems encountered by government agencies are typically accepted by intellectuals as unavoidable realities, while problems encountered by the market are assumed to be avoidable if only the government were in charge.

Put differently, when government agencies and activities encounter problems, Progressives invariably blame the problems either on unavoidable realities or on insufficient government control – which control, of course, they call for more of. Yet when markets encounter problems, Progressives seldom blame the problems on unavoidable realities, and never do Progressives reason that the problems might be caused by too little reliance on the market. Never, in the face of such problems, do Progressives call for greater reliance on the market.

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