Healthcare Economics

Government involvement in “healthcare” provides startling example of an incredible waste of resources that no one seems to notice. It shows how a current benefit causes a long-term drag on the economy.

In my last post I pointed out how a vote for government amounts to a vote for economic inefficiency.

In this post I will point out some important questions regarding a specific intervention of government in the market — the intervention in “healthcare.”

The complexity of this subject precludes me from covering it in any detail. I would simply like to point out some of the issues that people seem to ignore when dealing with the subject.

Terminology

How can we discuss the subject intelligently without using accurate terminology?

We have for years used the euphemistic term “healthcare” to refer to what should more accurately be referred to as “sickness-care.” In common usage, people normally use the term healthcare to refer to prescription drugs, hospital stays, vaccinations, etc. These topics, however, have a great deal to do with sickness and very little to do with health.

Most people also seem to deny that this sickness-care is a product or service that should have a normal market price. Some people claim that they have a right to healthcare. By some magical activity it should be given to them with no cost. They don’t seem to understand that healthcare consists of a service like many other services—not much different from the service of a plumber or an auto mechanic. Natural law gives you the right to life. It does not give you the right to health; that’s up to you.

To prevent confusion on your part I will continue to refer to sickness-care as healthcare. I don’t want you tripping over too many new concepts all at once.

Prices-Costs

Price plays an important role in the allocation of all resources—even those used in a service like healthcare. But, what mechanism tells bureaucrats what to pay providers for medical treatment services? They have no way to effectively and efficiently allocate resources to such a valuable service because they have no price mechanism to observe. If they want a resource, they give up nothing to get it—unlike a consumer would.

The willingness of people to pay for healthcare should determine the price of medical care in the same way that people’s willingness to pay for gasoline determines its price. How much do you value your own health? What sacrifice would you make to maintain good health?

The government does not — indeed cannot — know the answers to these questions. And, providing the service free, or cheap, creates another set of problems.

Demand

Economists don’t agree on very much, but they nearly universally agree that providing a good for free, or cheap, leads to more demand.

More demand almost always leads to higher prices for the entity paying the bills. When government takes on the role of providing any service for people, the price, ultimately paid by taxpayers, tends to rise. Look at the many activities in which government intervenes e.g. schools, union wages, postal service, real estate, etc. The prices rise faster than the rest of the market. The same thing happens to the cost of healthcare.

With free healthcare people tend to have more doctor visits, more visits to the ER, and more demand for prescription drugs. Since government does not know the value of any of these services, they have no way of knowing how much to provide nor at what cost.

Allocation

Ever-growing demand with the lack of an effective pricing mechanism leads to an inefficient allocation of medical resources. As with most government activities, providing healthcare amounts to a redistribution from the healthy and productive to the sick and less productive. This redistribution causes a drag on rest of the economy that affects all consumers. Without these pricing mechanisms, how can bureaucrats know who should get what treatment and when?

This principle—mis-allocation due to lack of price signals—applies particularly to what has become a political talking point: pre-existing conditions. Who defines the meaning of pre-existing conditions and determines who has them? Then, who pays for the treatment of those pre-existing conditions. As indicated above the healthy and more productive people pay for the sick and less productive.

The resources taken involuntarily from productive activities actually create a negative feedback for the sick themselves. The long-term source of the philanthropic support of those with serious conditions gets diminished by current taxation and transfers to the ill.

Enough resources do exist to help those who really need long-term financial assistance for their medical needs. Individuals, however, not the government should decide from where those resources come. The government, by confiscating people’s resources, insult the voluntary kindness of people and their willingness to help people in need. People with pre-existing conditions would not die in the streets without government stealing on their behalf.

Conclusion

Healthcare, like any other service, should be left to the participants in the market. Consumers should decide how much they value their own health, and generous individuals can and will help who need long-term medical care.

Government intervention in healthcare leads to at least three detrimental outcomes:

  • Higher costs—paid by tax payers.
  • Misallocation of resources—robbing more productive people.
  • A general drag on the economy—costing the healthy and sick alike.

Will legislators ever have the political courage to take the right and effective action and get government entirely out of the business of providing healthcare?