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Thomas Sowell / Aug. 4, 2009

Utopia Versus Freedom

“Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” We have heard that many times. What is also the price of freedom is the toleration of imperfections. If everything that is wrong with the world becomes a reason to turn more power over to some political savior, then freedom is going to erode away, while we are mindlessly repeating the catchwords of the hour, whether “change,” “universal health care” or “social justice.”

If we can be so easily stampeded by rhetoric that neither the public nor the Congress can be bothered to read, much less analyze, bills making massive changes in medical care, then do not be surprised when life and death decisions about you or your family are taken out of your hands– and out of the hands of your doctor– and transferred to bureaucrats in Washington.

Let’s go back to square one. The universe was not made to our specifications. Nor were human beings. So there is nothing surprising in the fact that we are dissatisfied with many things at many times. The big question is whether we are prepared to follow any politician who claims to be able to “solve” our “problem.”

If we are, then there will be a never ending series of “solutions,” each causing new problems calling for still more “solutions.” That way lies a never-ending quest, costing ever increasing amounts of the taxpayers’ money and– more important– ever greater losses of your freedom to live your own life as you see fit, rather than as presumptuous elites dictate.

Ultimately, our choice is to give up Utopian quests or give up our freedom. This has been recognized for centuries by some, but many others have not yet faced that reality, even today. If you think government should “do something” about anything that ticks you off, or anything you want and don’t have, then you have made your choice between Utopia and freedom.

Back in the 18th century, Edmund Burke said, “It is no inconsiderable part of wisdom, to know much of an evil ought to be tolerated” and “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.”

But today’s crusading zealots are not about to tolerate evils or infirmities. If insurance companies are not behaving the way some people think they should, then their answer is to set up a government bureaucracy to either control insurance companies or replace them.

If doctors, hospitals or pharmaceutical companies charge more than some people feel like paying, then the answer is price control. The actual track record of politicians, government bureaucracies, or price control is of no interest to those who think this way.

Politicians are already one of the main reasons why medical insurance is so expensive. Insurance is designed to cover risks but politicians are in the business of distributing largesse. Nothing is easier for politicians than to mandate things that insurance companies must cover, without the slightest regard for how such additional coverage will raise the cost of insurance.

If insurance covered only those things that most people are most concerned about– the high cost of a major medical expense– the price would be much lower than it is today, with politicians piling on mandate after mandate.

Since insurance covers risks, there is no reason for it to cover annual checkups, because it is known in advance that annual checkups occur once a year. Automobile insurance does not cover oil changes, much less the purchase of gasoline, since these are regular recurrences, not risks.

But politicians in the business of distributing largesse– especially with somebody else’s money– cannot resist the temptation to pass laws adding things to insurance coverage. Many of those who are pushing for more government involvement in medical care are already talking about extending insurance coverage to “mental health”– which is to say, giving shrinks and hypochondriacs a blank check drawn on the federal treasury.

There are still some voices of sanity today, echoing what Edmund Burke said long ago. “The study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections,” according to Prof. Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago. If you cannot tolerate imperfections, be prepared to kiss your freedom goodbye.

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