To the Lifeboats! Obamacare Is Sinking!

In a shocking revelation, the White House admitted this week that the technical rollout of the Affordable Care Act was “unacceptable.” Before that, it was subject to “glitches.” In other words, a scratch on the hull of the Titanic was finally admitted to be a dent. Yes, such glitches are unacceptable, clearly unacceptable.

Most mortals would at this point wonder if cruising through a field of icebergs was such a terrific idea. But not our starry-eyed Captain, Barack Obama. By God, he’ll get us where we’re going, if it kills every last one of us.

Unencumbered by doubt and immune to sensible correction by reality, the President has sailed us into territory that neither he nor anyone else knows how to navigate. Even Democrats, some of whom seem to be shaking off the effects of their infatuation with Obama, are beginning to look over the bow and see trouble ahead. Let’s see how we got here and ponder how we get out.


First, liberals are dedicated to–actually defined by–the idea that there is something called the “public good.” A foggy and constantly drifting notion, this is supposed to be the guiding beacon of modern governance. As it turns out, the public good is whatever annoys liberals the least. So, off the list of things alleged to be good for us all are: things that are successful without governmental oversight, individuals who say what they please, and junk food.

We libertarians are dubious of such airy notions as the “public good,” favoring instead a reliance upon a much simpler and more digestible principle: that individuals are free to live as they see fit and enjoy the fruits of their labor as long as they afford others the same right. Whether the subject is health care or hair-braiding licenses, we ask first whether there is some compelling reason for government to intervene. “Compelling” for us is not synonymous with “lots of people want this.”

Liberals, however, are inoculated against such elegant arguments. For them, the world is an ocean of complexity, requiring a skilled captain to navigate for the good of all his/her passengers. This metaphor is largely to blame for our current woes. The Founders were clear that government was not to be “run” by someone or several someones, even if they comprise a majority. Power was divided among our three branches of government to keep both thugs and do-gooders from trampling on individual rights.

The current sinking of the health care ship is not due to inclement weather (those nasty Republicans) but to the mistake of setting sail in the first place. No president, congress, or court can direct the trillions of individual decisions that go into providing health care as well as a free market can. To be sure, one can attempt to steer something as complex as health care. Much like pushing a string, however, serious people don’t attempt it.

The doctor who prescribes medicine is at the end of an unfathomably long chain of events. None of the actors involved can possibly predict that Jane Doe will need a particular remedy at a particular time. The people who make steel do not know whether it will go into a scalpel or a scooter. The people who design computers do not know whether they will be used by nerds or nurses. Yet they provide the things that get used. How?

The answer is as simple as it is deep. When left to their own devices, people in large groups trade with one another to their mutual benefit. Health care is no exception. The poor can afford health care better within a free market for the same reason that they can own cell phones–producers competing freely and fiercely to deliver the best and the cheapest. What was a bulky and unsightly luxury a few years ago now enables even the poor to frivol away their time on Twitter.

When a liberal bemoans what the free market has done to health care, one should ask, “What free market?” For decades, government has tweaked markets, thinking that a regulation here and a tax there will make things just right. The result? An insurance industry chock-full of crony capitalists and a Medicare system that cannot last more than a few years.

So why is the Obamacare rollout so significant? Well, because all of America gets to see firsthand just how badly the government can screw something up. Instead of having to think a few years into the future, we can see the shipwreck right here, right now. Premiums are going up, servers are going down, and those insurance policies we were supposed to be able to keep are disappearing like rats from a doomed vessel.

I constantly hope that people will learn, and I am constantly disappointed that they don’t. Nonetheless, let’s see if we can plot a course out of these waters.

1) Let’s stop pretending that anyone is “owed” health care. No one is owed anything that is produced by the efforts of another. Liberals who stop insisting that they are will find that they have much more time to do some genuine good–like establishing voluntary health care cooperatives.

2) Get government out of the business of health care immediately. Repeal the ACA and begin the process of eliminating regulations having to do with how people treat, or seek treatment for, disease.

3) In order to ease the transition to a true free market for health care, establish unlimited tax deductions for medical savings accounts. Allow people to place as much money as they like into these accounts and to use them for the care of others if they choose, including voluntary health care cooperatives (see #1 above).

At one time, these three proposals would have been as unthinkable as abandoning a luxury liner for a small wooden boat. That was before the passengers came up to the deck and saw the icebergs for themselves. Let’s be gracious as we guide them to the lifeboats.

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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