All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 2001

Perspective ~ Prescription for Disaster

The level to which public-policy debate has sunk in America is nowhere as obvious as in the debate over prescription drug benefits.

Today hardly anyone believes he should have to pay for medical care. It’s a right, to be paid for, somehow, by someone other than the patient. That’s called “insurance.” But it’s an odd sort of insurance, because the premium, if any, must be purely nominal, bearing no relation to the propensity of an individual to consume medical services.

The idea that one has a right to what one needs fuels an easily exploited resentment against those who are able to satisfy that need. Thus the resentment directed at pharmaceutical companies. I imagine those companies price their products to maximize revenues. Who doesn’t? But since these are life-saving products in many cases, normal economic activity is portrayed as monstrous. (If the government didn’t hide the true expense of drugs through tax-preferred, employer-provided health insurance and didn’t inflate the cost of developing drugs with regulatory demands, we’d most likely see lower prices.)

It is easily forgotten that those companies own the products. They had no obligation to risk the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes on average to bring an effective medicine to market. They did it to make money. It is also forgotten that without profits, there would be no more life-saving drugs.

No one complains about the price of drugs not yet developed. Before the development of the drugs for which the companies charge their “unconscionable prices,” people had to undergo much more costly surgery, or they suffered or died because nothing could be done for them. The drug companies have made our lives incomparably better than they used to be—which is precisely why they are treated as oppressors.

There cannot be a right to medical care because it has to be provided by someone and slavery is immoral, not to mention illegal and unconstitutional. Any attempt to legislate a right to medical care only serves to expand the coercive power of government. This is particularly scary with medical care. We ignore the Medicare precedent at our peril. Who wants the government deciding who gets what drug? Who wants the government doing triage?

* * *

Can money buy happiness? Perhaps not, but people in freer economies are happier than people in controlled economies. Daniel Oliver looked it up.

Government not only jeopardizes the future; it also jeopardizes the past. By the same token, capitalism not only protects the future, it also protects the past. J. Bishop Grewell and Matthew Brown have a report from the world of paleontology.

If the government’s allocation of credit to failing farmers is any indication of how it manages financial matters, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything else we’ve witnessed. James Bovard explains.

The political slogans of the last few months would have us believe that “working families” have low-to-middle incomes. As it turns out, the richer a family, the more it works. Wilson Mixon and E. Frank Stephenson have the details.

A hot new book being celebrated in the media maintains that the early Americans had little interest in guns, rarely owned them, and left the hunting to professionals. Clayton Cramer says the author must be talking about another America.

Ancient Athens was the most advanced society of its day. The government had nothing to do with education there. Coincidence? Kathleen Melonakos thinks not.

The world has changed, but advice to college graduates has not. Gerald Gunderson does his part to keep this year’s graduating class from going astray.

The Securities and Exchange Commission now requires that if a company gives any information to anybody, it must give it to everybody. Is this fairness or egalitarianism run amok? Christopher Mayer hunts for unintended consequences.

Bill Brosnan was a railroad man who modernized his industry and saved it from the government’s maw. Charles Morgret contributes a profile of this inspirational figure.

The virulent form of statism known as apartheid is gone from South Africa. Several years of rule by African National Congress, however, demonstrate that prosperity and freedom require more than the mere absence of overt racial laws. Jim Peron has an up-close look.

Here’s what our columnists have come up with: Donald Boudreaux sees government as a con artist. Lawrence Reed suggests alternatives to the usual political labels. Doug Bandow contemplates the U.S. relationship with China and Taiwan. Thomas Szasz wonders why government schools are pushing caffeine on our kids. Dwight Lee winds up his discussion of marginalism. Mark Skousen celebrates economics’ imperialism. Walter Williams ponders state servitude. And Thomas DiLorenzo, reading the latest apology for the antitrust laws, remonstrates, “It Just Ain’t So!”

The books that come under review this month deal with communism’s crimes, Social Security, patent laws, the way we treat boys, suicide, and government’s shortcomings.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.