A frequent topic of this blog is to point out situations where technocrats translate their distrust for individual decision-making into the justification for government control.
Kevin Drum provides me with one of the best examples I have seen of late of this phenomena of using distrust of individual decision-making to justify government intervention, in part because he is so honest and up-front about it. I usually try not to quote another blogger's posts in total, because I want to give folks an incentive to go visit the site, but in this case I need to show the whole thing (the extensive comments are still worth a visit):
If we treat healthcare like any other market, allowing consumers
free rein to purchase the services they like best, will it produce high
quality results? A recent study suggests not:
from the Rand Corp. think tank, the University of California at Los
Angeles and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs asked 236
elderly patients at two big managed-care plans, one in the Southwest
and the other in the Northeast, to rate the medical care they were
getting. The average score was high "” about 8.9 on a scale from zero to
....In the second part of their study, the medical researchers
systematically examined 13 months of medical records to gauge the
quality of care the same elderly patients had received....The average
score wasn't as impressive as those in the patient-satisfaction
surveys: 5.5 on a 10-point scale. But here's the interesting part:
Those patients who graded the quality of their care as 10 weren't any
more likely to be getting high-quality care than those who gave it a
grade of 5. The most-satisfied patients didn't get better medical care
than the least-satisfied.
Surprise! Patients are
poor judges of whether they're getting good care. And if consumer
preferences don't map to high quality care, then a free market in
healthcare won't necessarily produce better results or higher
efficiency, as it does in most markets.
Back to the drawing board. Perhaps a national healthcare system
would be a better bet to reduce costs, cover more people, provide
patients with more flexibility, and produce superior outcomes. After
all, why are we satisfied with allowing the French to have a better
healthcare system than ours even though we're half again richer than
There is it, in black and white: Most of you individual slobs out there cannot be trusted to make good health care decisions for yourselves, so the government should do it for you. (And by the way, who the hell thinks the French have a better health care system, but that's off-topic for today).
Here is the false premise: If the intellectuals who ran the study judged that the individuals involved were getting poor care when the individuals themselves thought is was good care, this does not necessarily mean the individuals being studied were wrong. It may very well mean they have different criteria for judging health care quality and value. In fact, what goes unquestioned here, and I guess the reader is supposed to swallow, is that there is some sort of Platonic ideal of "high-quality care" that the people who run this study have access to.
But this is ridiculous. Does high-quality mean fast? painless? private? successful? pleasant? convenient? I, for example, have all the patience of an 8-year-old who just ate three pieces of birthday cake washed down by two Cokes. I need stuff now, now, now. I hate gourmet restaurants where meals take 3 hours. Many gourmands, on the other hand, would probably shoot themselves before eating some of the food I eat. We have different standards.
Let's take an example from another industry: Cars. Every year, the "experts" at Consumer Reports and Car and Driver try out all the new cars and publish the two or three they think are the best. So, does this mean that everyone who does not buy one of these cars selected by the experts as the best are making a bad decision? Does this fact tell us the government should step in and buy their cars for them because they can't be trusted to make the right evaluations? NO! Of course not. It means that the people who buy other types of cars have different criteria and priorities in judging what a "high-quality" car is. Some want high gas mileage. Some want a tight interior with leather. Some want a big honkin' engine. Some want a truck jacked way up in the air. Some want room to carry five kids. You get the idea.
There are at least two better explanations for the study results. Let's first be clear what the study results were: The study found that the patients studied graded health care differently than did the people who ran the study. That's all it found. This could mean that the intellectuals who ran the study and the individuals studied judged care on different dimensions and with different priorities. Or it could mean that the individuals studied had incomplete information about their care and their choices. Neither justifies a government takeover of the industry. (In fact, to the latter point about information, markets that are truly allowed by the government to be free, which health care has not, often develop information sources for consumers, like the car magazines mentioned above.)
The thinking in Drum's post betrays the elitist-technocratic impulses behind a lot of the world's bad government. Look at "progressive" causes around the world, and you will see a unifying theme of individual decisions that are not trusted, whether its a poor Chinese farmer who can't be trusted to choose the right factory work or an American worker who can't be trusted to make her own investment decisions for retirement.
Postscript: In some past era, I might have called this one of the worst excuses for fascism I had ever heard. Unfortunately, Brad DeLong recently took that title with his post that the government needs to take even more money from the rich because the rich are ostentatious and that hurts other people's feelings. No really, I don't exaggerate, he said exactly that. If somehow you have missed this one, look here.