Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar 5763

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

"Universal health care" | If there was one defining moment in the debates among an already crowded field of Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination in 2004, it may well have been when Congressman Dennis Kucinich, pushing for government-provided health care, spoke with obvious disgust of the "profits" of the insurance companies and provoked a burst of spontaneous applause from like-minded members of the audience.

Insurance companies, like every other kind of institution, have to earn money in order to keep functioning. So does every individual who was not born rich. But some people react to the word "profit" with automatic responses, like Pavlov's dog.

Such prejudice against a word was far more common half a century ago than it is today. Congressman Kucinich may think of himself as a "progressive," but he is in fact a throwback to a bygone era.

Profit was defined as "overcharge" by George Bernard Shaw, one of the founders of Fabian socialism. "Never speak to me of profit," India's Prime Minister Nehru once said to his country's leading industrialist. "It is a dirty word."

Why are such conceptions of profit no longer as common as they were 50 years ago? Because of half a century of experience with economies that tried to operate without profit. Back in the 1950s, socialism was the wave of the future and countries around the world tried out one variety or another.

With profits eliminated, in theory there should have been lower prices for the consumers, who would now be able to afford a higher standard of living. In reality, countries that went the socialist route found themselves falling farther behind countries that allowed the hated profit system to continue to exist.

Naturally, political leaders with the vision of a government-controlled economy did not want to admit that they were wrong, much less have the voters realize that they were wrong. Only when decade after decade of blatant evidence from around the world became undeniable did governments begin to withdraw their suffocating controls and sell government-owned industries to private entrepreneurs.

But, just as there are still pockets of resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, so there are still holdouts like Congressman Kucinich and like-minded Democrats. Socialism has been discredited as an explicitly avowed belief but it still lives on in a thousand disguises, of which "universal health care" is just one.

Like so many pretty words used in politics, "universal health care" is seldom examined in terms of what its actual track record has been in the countries where it has been tried.

Probably the first country to have universal health care provided by the government was the Soviet Union. After decades of socialized medicine, what was the end result? In its last years, the Soviet Union was one of the few countries in the world with a declining life span and a rising rate of infant mortality.

But that terrible word "profit" had been banished and apparently that is what matters to the true believers.

Not all countries that tried socialized medicine went as far as the Soviet Union. But there has been a whole pattern of problems common to government-controlled medical care systems, whether in China, Britain, Canada or elsewhere. And none of the anti-profit zealots want to talk about any of those problems.

None of those who wants us to move in the direction of Canada on health care ever faces the question: Why do so many Canadians come to the United States for medical treatment and so few Americans go to Canada?

Could it be that we should look at what actually works, rather than what sounds good? Nor should we be overly impressed by words that sound bad, like "uninsured Americans." The bottom line is medical care, not insurance. People without insurance are treated at hospitals all across America every day.

Before we even consider throwing away what works in favor of something that has failed repeatedly, we need to stop reacting to words and start looking at facts. Socialism by any other name is still socialism -- whether it is advocated by shrill zealots like Kucinich or by other Democrats whose words are smoother.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)


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