Donald Boudreaux: In 2020, let’s vote for the adult
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., won applause during Tuesday’s presidential debate with this proclamation: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Were I on that stage, here’s how I’d have responded:
“Senator Warren, perhaps I can help you to understand. As the great economist Thomas Sowell puts it, ‘reality is not optional.’ While we should not be afraid of creative ideas for change, to be worthwhile, these ideas must conform to economic reality. The more we pursue goals that are impossible or even improbable, the less time and energy we have for the pursuit of worthwhile goals that are achievable.
“And so it’s important for us to understand what we can’t do in order to ensure that we focus on what we can do.
“I get that we candidates win applause and votes by promising the moon. Promises made on the campaign trail are cheap, and the temptation is powerful for each of us to out-promise the other. But if we who seek political office really do want to be leaders — as opposed to merely being called ‘leaders’ — we must be responsible and realistic.
“Consider health care. For government to pay for everyone’s health care is for government to further increase each American’s incentive to overuse health care resources. Just as I’m more likely to order steak and lobster, rather than meatloaf, if the restaurant charges me nothing for my meal, I’m more likely to avail myself of highly costly medical care, rather than less costly care, if I’m shielded from the cost of doing so.
“For example, rather than go to an optician to be fitted for new eyeglasses, I’ll instead go to a more highly trained ophthalmologist. Why not? I’m not paying for it! And I won’t ever learn of the person with a serious eye disease who the ophthalmologist would have treated and cured had that highly specialized physician not instead spent time doing for me what an optician could have done perfectly well.
“Because what’s true for me is true for everyone, health care resources are over-used when government pays for our health care, thus driving costs to artificial heights.
“I know: You’ll respond that when people need medical care they should have unlimited access to the very best care. This line sounds good. And it would be fine if resources weren’t limited. But because resources are limited, providing unlimited amounts of the very best health care to everyone is simply impossible.
“Therefore, relieving us Americans of having to pay directly for our medical care will oblige government to ration care. That’s an inevitable result of causing the demand for many kinds of health care to exceed the supply. There’s no avoiding the need to prevent people from consuming all the medical care they seek to consume when they don’t pay for it directly.
“Being realistic and honest about this matter is what is done by the adults in the room.
“Unfortunately, all this political campaigning seems to turn us in to children — brats, even. Frantic to increase our popularity, we make wild promises. We become no different from children, who are fixated on today and heedless of tomorrow.
“But tomorrow will come. And so by being realistic today regarding what government can’t do, we better ensure that tomorrow brings blessings rather than unbearable burdens.”
Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.