First of all, whoever Photoshopped the popular web meme on the left to create the much-more-popular-with-me web meme on the right is a genius—in that he has repurposed a brutally stupid image in order to indict brutality—and less than a genius in that he seems to have been unable to match one of the world’s most common fonts. Good work anyway, dude. Second of all, “socialism” is rapidly overtaking “love” on the list of words most terribly abused by contemporary discourse. Accusations of socialism have dogged the Obama administration, whose decisions to take ownership stakes in GM, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have outraged Republicans, who believe the federal government should only have ownership stakes in, um, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The GOP isn’t the only powerful voting bloc that’s concerned. Among retards, socialism has become synonymous with totalitarian government, as one attendee at congressman Brian Baird’s health care town hall reminds us. “The Nazis were the National Socialist Party,” he says. “They were leftists.”
I’m sure many of the German union organizers and communists beaten to death by Brownshirts in the early thirties would be glad to know that their ideology triumphed in the end. Those of us who are still alive, though—at least until such time as we need medical care—might actually need to know what socialism is, and to what extent our nation can safely participate in it. After all, an economic system that advocates “government ownership of all means of production, and further advocates that only the government can control the distribution of the products to the consumers and the distribution of wealth to the citizens”—as Yahoo! Answers defines socialism—sounds pretty terrifying. We out-of-touch elites who have been to college or taken a high school economics class might know that that’s a definition of pure communism exceeding the system implemented in Stalin’s Russia, but what about people who get their information by typing questions into the internet? Because they are asking, and the response is kind of unhelpful.
Clearly, proponents of health care reform* need to frame the “socialism” aspect of this debate in terms that are, if not favorable, at least vaguely accurate. While socialism can describe total government control of industry and collective ownership of capital, it can also describe a system by which public funds support the operation of, say, a postal service. That little streak of red got written into the US Constitution, 75 years before Marx wrote Das Kapital. We’ve been on the slippery slope toward total government control ever since, as the Socialist Conspiracy has stolen free market efficiency away from police departments, libraries, schools and, perhaps most horrifyingly, fire departments.
The particularly amusing history of that last innovation is noted in this column by Tina Dupuy, courtesy of the Huffington Post.** During the early days of urbanization in the nineteenth century, American fire departments were generally run as for-profit entities. New York boasted several competing private fire brigades, which would race one another to burning buildings in order to get a slice of that sweet, sweet fire insurance pie. Don’t have fire insurance? Don’t worry—one or more fire brigades will take your valuables out of your house anyway, and keep as many of them as necessary to cover your bill. Sound familiar yet? Of course, the same market competition that ensures the fastest fire brigade response also makes it likely that competing crews will fight once they get to your house, as they often did at the expense of, you know, putting out the fire. But what’s the alternative? Levy city taxes, so that freeloaders too lazy to buy their own fire insurance can slide by on my dime? Sorry, Vladimir. Your fire, your problem. It’s not like it’s going to spread.
Fire control and health care don’t just parallel each other on a social level; the business models of the two industries are remarkably similar, too. Unlike, say, someone buying a car, the purchaser of fire brigade services cannot take advantage of the free market principle of supply and demand. If Ford starts charging $90,000 for an Escort, people won’t buy cars until the price comes down. If your house is on fire, on the other hand, you’re going to pay any price. When I broke my hand, there was some question as to whether Aetna would pay to have it treated, since I needed to demonstrate that my broken hand was not a pre-existing condition.*** I went ahead and opted to get the surgery anyway, but the hospital wouldn’t tell me how much it was going to cost before I actually went under. The total bill wound up being about $23,000, which I was in no position to negotiate.**** In retrospect, it’s unclear how much I would have been willing to pay for a non-crippled right hand. Would fifty grand have been too much? A hundred? How much would you fork over for a triple bypass?
Like the charwoman whose tenement is burning down, the sick or injured person can’t really wait until Adam Smith’s invisible hand straightens out the cost of bone marrow. Health care purchases are usually made unexpectedly, which is why we (some of us) have health insurance. The problem is that the expense of health care has risen to such a degree that any significant injury could wipe out most families. Had I not been insured when I broke my hand, I would have declared bankruptcy. While we can choose which private health insurance policy to sign up for, the rational actor must purchase one of them. That’s a problem in an industry that is now run by seven companies.
So health insurance is an industry in which A) prices are negotiated between service providers and a paid middleman, B) the market is dominated by a small number of such middlemen and C) a third party is required by circumstances to pay whatever price is determined in part A, plus a monthly premium. That sounds like a profoundly moral alternative to the inherently evil practice of socialism. It’s got to be more efficient than government involvement, too. The free market works, people—just ask any public school student, mugging victim or woman whose house is burning down. Better yet, ask a paid lobbyist!
* including my self-insured ass
** Props to Smick for the link, via Facebook. I don’t read HuffPo, myself, in order to preserve my perfect political neutrality.
*** I had been insured through Aetna for about nine months at that point; I would have had to pound my hand with a hammer every morning just to keep it broken. I sincerely hope that Obama’s health care proposal passes, bankrupts Aetna, and forces everyone who used to work in their call centers to do internet pornography.
**** Aetna, on the other hand, was. Twenty-three grand is what the hospital charges an uninsured person to get his hand fixed. The “Aetna negotiated cost” of my surgery was four thousand dollars. The free market totally lowers the cost of health care for any single entity that represents millions of patients. Not that that could have anything to do with a public option.