I, Health Care

Have you ever wondered why so many wonderful things that enhance and enrich our lives exist?  Like pencils?

In his classic essay, I, Pencil, Leonard Read explains the extraordinarily complex processes that bring wood, graphite, resin, and a host of other materials and know-how together to form that lowly writing instrument that all of us use at one time or another.  There is not a single person on Earth who can make one, or even a small part of one.  How then, is a pencil made?

I cannot do service to this argument.  Read has done so most eloquently, and I leave it to you to read the essay.  Do it now.  I’ll wait.


Back?  I hope you did not rush.  Let the whole idea sink in, for if you understand it, you can grasp why our country is hurtling toward a precipice and what we can do about it.  A government can no more direct even a small part of an economy than one person can master all that is required to make a pencil.  Thousands upon thousands of free people act with no director at all and the result is a pencil, or a car, or medical treatment. Thousands upon thousands of politicians and bureaucrats act and the result is a disaster.

Every bit of knowledge, every ounce of skill, and every instrument a doctor uses is the result of so many freely coordinated activities that it boggles the mind.  The engineer designs a scalpel, not knowing on whom it will be used.  The chemist works on a medicine for no one in particular.  The receptionist cares not about the identity of the parade of patients coming through the clinic.  Each plies his/her trade in exchange for money, which in turn is used to buy a thousand other things, like pencils.  The vast majority of the people who contribute will never see a patient.

In place of this wonderfully unorchestrated symphony, our government would like to put legions of tone-deaf kazoo players.  They want a system where they control how these things are coordinated, they determine how much doctors are paid, and they dictate how patients are to be treated.  No sane group of people would even entertain the notion that this kind of system will bring those thousands of people and resources together as efficiently as a free market.  But then, we are talking about government.

The solution?  Get government out of the health care business.  Not everyone has a pencil handy when needed, but through the magic of the free market, even the poorest among us can get one with reasonable effort.  It would be the same with doctors if the government were to leave well enough alone.  Those who cannot afford one would soon find themselves the recipients of private charity.  This because there would be plenty of doctors with plenty of resources provided by the infinite wisdom of a mechanism beyond our ability to replicate.  If the government starts providing pencils, we well be scratching in the dirt.  If they start providing health care, we’ll soon be pushing up dirt.


Terry is not usually this blunt, but he loves humanity and hates tyrants.  Please forgive him if the health care debate has made him a little testy.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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