Death or Government?

A lot has been made about cheers from audience members at recent Republican debates at the mention of people dying. In one instance people cheered at the number of those killed by the death penalty in the state of Texas under Governor Rick Perry, in another they shouted “yes” to a question about whether an uninsured person should be allowed to die.

I did not watch the debates, as I consciously avoid listening to politicians and pundits. I cannot confirm or deny the cheers or decipher what motivated them, but it’s hard to imagine any scenario under which cheering someone’s death reveals a Christ-like heart. It is indeed troubling to me that the audience would revel in the idea of anyone’s death, even a criminal. Death is sober and tragic, even if it is sometimes just.

What I also find troubling is the reaction by many on the political left who respond to this callousness with equal callousness and ignorance by suggesting that the opposite of blood-lust is big government. Particularly in the case of health care, a false choice is presented: You either want people to die, or you want government to get more involved in health care. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Perhaps the members of the debate audience are a rare exception, but I know of no one who wants more people to die for lack of health care. If your argument against your political opponent rests on the assumption that they want people to suffer and die, then you are arguing against fiction. The question is not whether or not you want more people to die; the question is what kind of health care system will work the best at our reaching our shared goal of longer, healthier lives for all?

Government has resulted in more deaths than any other institution in the history of the world, both directly and indirectly. It has an abysmal track record of protecting human rights and dignity, delivering products and services, avoiding corruption, conserving and using wisely scarce resources, and organizing and responding to dispersed information about human wants and needs.

Markets, while no Nirvana, have produced all of the things that make modern life humane, healthy and fulfilling. As my friend Larry Reed often asks, do you think the next cure for cancer is more likely to come from Pyongyang or a relatively free economy? What happens when governments try to out-plan the market? Corruption, waste, inefficiency, and most tragically, unnecessary suffering and death.

What also disturbs me about some of the responses to the cheers at the debate is the idea that it’s compassionate to force other people to help someone. The question, “Would you leave someone to die or use government to help them?” is unrealistic and misleading. All over the world people are dying. What can you do? Can you stop it? Can you prevent every death? Can anyone? Probably not. But we do know that far fewer people die where a large degree of personal and economic freedom exist than where government reigns. If we want fewer deaths, we should seek more freedom.

It is the easy but irresponsible thing to isolate one hypothetical death and advocate government action to prevent it. What is government action? It is violence. Mandates backed by force, or revenues collected by force. It interferes with peaceful, voluntary action and the order and progress they create. When it is used to alleviate one visible ill, it creates untold “unseen” problems much worse than the one it aimed to solve.

Imagine if a neighbor was sick and could not afford a costly treatment. I sincerely hope you would do what you could to help. But would you go door to door with a gun and take money from the others in the neighborhood? Not only would this be morally backward, if this were condoned as the proper response it would create a neighborhood with perverse incentives and would result in less cooperation and more conflict among neighbors. People would hide their wealth, fear their neighbors, try to game the system. Neighbors would despise those who got sick and received their stolen funds. Imagine if all medical procedures were funded in this way? What would it do to the consumers and producers of medicine and to those who funded it? What would it do to innovation, charity, community and ultimately health?

We do not live in a world where every death can be prevented. We do live in a world with trade-offs and with complex social and economic institutions that evolve to coordinate our varied goals and activities and use resources in the best way we know how. Disrupting those institutions with the violent hand of the state in effort to realize an impossible goal or to alleviate the short-term visible pain of a few at the expense of the longer term welfare of all is a bad idea. Its advocates may have good intentions, but the results will be anything but compassionate.

Government involvement in health care should be debated with realistic comparative analysis. How do markets fare at meeting our goals in regards to health and how do governments fair, in theory and in practice? Comparing imperfect markets to an imagined perfect state is a fallacy that can lead to dangerous and incorrect conclusions. Assuming that anyone who argues for markets over government wants more people to die is naïve and should not be taken seriously.

I do not know what motivated cheers from the audience at the prospect of someone’s death. I do know that arguments for a greater role for voluntary institutions and a lesser role for coercive state plans do not require such callousness. Indeed, it is for the protection and preservation of life that I wish to reduce the role of government in society.

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