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Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2000 /17 Elul, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Drugged politics

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- NOW THAT the presidential candidates are trying to outbid each other for the votes of the elderly, by offering to have the government pay for their prescription drugs, it is time for the voters to start thinking for themselves -- if that is still possible, after decades of dumbed-down education.

We all know the political image of the poverty-stricken senior citizen, forced to choose between food and badly needed medicine. Before we react emotionally to such contrived political images, we should ask ourselves: Would this terrible choice be any different if the person were 30 years old instead of 60 or 70? Why then are we talking about the elderly, when such a dire situation -- to the extent that it exists at all -- is a result of poverty, rather than age?

Yes, the elderly are more likely to need medication. But the elderly are also more likely to have the money to pay for it. For decades on end, Census data have shown that older adults have more income and wealth than younger adults. Why then should people who have less money be subsidizing people who have more money?

Isolated individual tragedies can be dealt with -- and are already being dealt with -- without creating another massive, costly government program encompassing everyone and tangling us all in red tape and bureaucracy. The first thing the Clinton administration tried to do when it took office in 1993 was take over the nation's medical profession and pharmaceutical industry. But, after Hillary Clinton lost her brazen bid for sweeping powers in this area, they went to Plan B, which is to take over on the instalment plan.

Thus Al Gore's latest demagoguery about prescription drugs, which has apparently been so successful that George W. Bush and the Republicans seem to have decided that, if you can't lick 'em, join 'em. But bipartisan nonsense is still nonsense -- and dangerous nonsense, when the clumsy hands of government start fooling around politically with life-and-death medical issues.

It is easy and cheap for politicians to demagogue about the "astronomical" profits of pharmaceutical drug companies -- especially when using a phony basis for figuring profits. Most research on new drugs loses money. That means that the relatively few drugs which turn out to succeed medically and economically have to make enough profit to cover all the losses on the other drugs. It is ridiculous to look at the profits on successful drugs in isolation, when numerous costly failures are the price of success.

The government can always clamp price controls on the successful drugs in the name of preventing "profiteering." But that means reducing the incentives to continue the investments -- tens of billions of dollars -- necessary to keep developing new drugs. In the short run, politicians can get themselves elected by bringing down drug prices. In the long run, more people will die needlessly because the same massive level of investment in the development of new medicines will not take place.

Price controls have been politically popular and economically disastrous for centuries. That is because neither the politicians nor the voters look beyond the immediate lure of something-for-nothing to the repercussions that follow, time and again. These repercussions include shortages, quality deterioration and black markets. None of this is new. Similar things happened in Roman times. But who reads history these days?

The politicians' other great medical fraud is creating the impression that people without health insurance are without medical treatment. That has not been true for a very long time, if it was ever true in this country.

Half a century ago, I was treated at one of the finest medical facilities in America, at a time when I could not afford medical insurance or even life insurance. I paid off the bill in installments. Today, people are treated at hospitals all across the country, whether they have medical insurance or not, and whether they can afford to pay anything or not.

There are many people -- including affluent people -- who do not choose to be insured, precisely because of the availability of medical treatment for people who are not insured. Healthy young people may prefer to have a newer or snazzier car instead of paying insurance premiums to cover things they don't expect to need.

None of the countries with government-controlled medicine can match the quality of health care or of medical and pharmaceutical advances in the United States. If it ain't broke, don't fix it -- and, especially, don't let politicians fix it.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, A Personal Odyssey.

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