Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John Mackey on the right path

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, recently wrote an OP/ED piece in the Wall Street Journal touting some health insurance reforms. In that piece, he hit upon the major issue with the current administration's approach to health care reform:

"Many promoters of health care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care-to universal and equal access to doctors, medicines, and hospitals. While all of us can empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have any more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have an intrinsic right to food, clothing, owning their own homes, a car or a personal computer? Health care is a service which we all need at some point in our lives, but just like food, clothing, and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually-beneficial market exchanges rather than through government mandates. A careful reading of both The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter, because there isn’t any. This “right” has never existed in America."

Mr. Mackey is right on. The first sentence of the quote frames the issue correctly. And he explains why, to those who believe in the "intrinsic ethical right" of health care, in terms of feasibility and formality this idea should be a non-starter. Of course these truths will not convince most on the left to abandon ideas like single-payer or universal coverage.

The more basic problem with thinking that health care is a right is that this concept is based on a moral or ethical ideal rather than an essential principle of reality. People will tend to operate for self-interest first, then worry about everything else (including cooperative or collective ideals) later. This is a reality many simply ignore, because they really, really want to believe in the ideal, reality aside. This idealism is just as misplaced here, as is it for those who advocate prohibitions against alcohol and other drugs. People will want to do what they will, no matter how bad Ted Kennedy or Richard Nixon wishes it were otherwise.

Economics is the social science of scarcity. Economics and the free market not only accept the reality of human self-interest, they leverage it! Idealism that seeks to impose "rights" beyond this reality are fighting against human nature. Generally speaking, the complexity and cost of laws / regulations, and the corresponding bureaucracy to enforce them, make most social initiatives based in idealism impractical. Until the social reformers accept this reality, we will continue to have these debates about public policy and what is and what should be.

I for one am ready to move on.