One of the most difficult lessons for people to understand and learn is that sometimes you just have to "let go." That is, you must accept the fact that not everything can be controlled and trying to do so sometimes can make a situation worse. This is never more true than when it concerns government intervention in the economic affairs of the citizenry.
Think of the controversy around the implementation and imposition of ObamaCare. Critics have hammered away at the disaster surrounding the opening of the government’s enrollment website, at the loss of coverage by millions of health insurance policy holders, or the jolting higher premiums or deductibles that many people have discovered they must pay under the "Affordable" Care Act.
Everyone is Looking for a Healthcare Plan
What has been the response of President Obama’s administration and by other supporters of government compulsory health insurance? Besides an illusionary insistence that "now" everything is working just fine, and that people will just "love" this government-mandated "good product" as soon as everyone has had to live under it for a while, their reply has been, "Well, if you think that the Affordable Care Act is so bad, what is your plan for replacing it with something better? What is your alternative agenda for assuring that all Americans have high quality and reasonably priced health insurance and medical care?"
How have the critics responded to this challenge from Obama and his supporters? They often have seemed to be fumbling around, first pointing the finger back at all the problems with ObamaCare and, second, vaguely alluding to the idea that they have an alternative plan that the government could introduce that would "fix" the healthcare "problem" and make everyone much happier.
In other words, the critics of ObamaCare have bought into the fundamental premise that healthcare should be the concern of government, and that if it is, then there needs to be a different political "plan" that also would be imposed on all the people.
What About Government Planning of Shoes?
Suppose tomorrow the "progressives" were to discover a new crisis in America, the "shoe crisis." Yes, it seems that not everyone has good, quality, comfortable shoes. Some people can barely afford shoes, and what about "the children"? Children’s feet keep growing, and how can we be sure that parents will be financially able and willing to buy new shoes for their sons and daughters as their feet grow out of the current size they are wearing?
Isn’t this what government is for, to assure that every American has the decent, affordable and comfortable shoes to which they have a "right" as a human being? Why, every American is "entitled" to a good pair of shoes!
Can we rely upon the profit-motivated greed of private shoe manufacturers to keep shoes available and affordable for every American? Just think of those who may have bunion "preconditions" when buying shoes. There ought to be a law!
So before we know it the president of the United States goes on television saying that he is pushing for Congress to pass the "Affordable Footwear Act." And if Congress does not do what he knows is good for every American, he has a pen and a telephone to implement executive orders to meet the shoes requirements of "the needy."
Now, how should the critics respond to such an Affordable Footwear Act, or "ObamaWear," as it begins to be called? It certainly should not be by saying that they have some alternative plan for government to subsidize low-income shoe consumers, or mandate a special tax-funded program for "footwear for tots."
Freedom Means the Right to Live for Yourself
The first response should be a philosophical one, which harks back to the founding principles of the country. The purpose of government is not to paternalistically manage and manipulate the lives of the citizenry. The government in a free society is meant to be the protector of each individual’s right to his own life, liberty and honestly acquired property, and to assure that all human relationships are based on peaceful, voluntary consent, rather than violence or fraud.
Who is the president of the United States to presume that he knows what shoes every American needs or wants? Who is he to declare that he will not stand by and allow private shoe manufacturers to sell "substandard" footwear? How does he, a mortal human being like the rest of us, presume to have God-like wisdom to know what type of shoe meets the needs of every man, woman and child in America?
Is he like some absolute monarch of the past who imposed ancient "sumptuary laws" dictating the clothes, food and furniture that were considered necessary and appropriate for the various members and groups of society, and which were mandated for some and prohibited for others under threat of legal fine or imprisonment?
The critics should declare and insist that any such "ObamaWear" legislation that might be passed should be repealed, for it would not be compatible with the principle and practice of individual freedom.
The mark of a free man is that he is at liberty to determine his own needs and requirements, and make his own choices and trade-offs concerning what is wanted and desired for him and his family. This applies no less to healthcare or footwear than to anything else in everyday life.
Markets Use More Knowledge than Governments Possess
The second response to such a proposal for an "ObamaWear" piece of legislation should be that the government has neither the knowledge, wisdom nor ability to successfully plan, dictate and direct the production, distribution and sale of a commodity such as shoes.
The special benefit of leaving the supplying of any good or service to the competitive market place – including healthcare and footwear – is that it brings to bear the skills and talents of a vast number of people without any planner or regulator having to know enough to successfully direct all of them in the required tasks to bring a desired commodity to market.
Competitive market prices serve as the signals to tell potential producers what it is that consumers may want and the relative profitability from providing it, while leaving each individual free to use the knowledge, experience and talent that only he possesses in deciding how best to undertake the task of fulfilling some consumer demand for which he may be best suited to help satisfy.
The freedom of the market place is profoundly important because we can never anticipate what it may be that some individual might creatively come up with to solve a problem or better provide some product or service that might never be imaged until that creative mind sets itself to work on it.
Freedom is Important Because of What We Don’t Know
As the free market Austrian economist and Nobel Prize winner, F.A. Hayek, pointed out in his book, The Constitution of Liberty (1960):
Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and the unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realizing many of our aims.
It is because every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.
In other words, government planning and regulation undermines, indeed, prevents the real planning out of which human problems are solved and the human condition is improved: the individual planning of each member in society for his own life and in his own place in the social system of division of labor through which both he and all the rest of us benefit.
As a number of critics of government intervention and control have long pointed out, the issue is not government planning versus no planning. Rather, shall the government impose through political coercion its own one plan to solve some supposed "social problem," or shall multitudes of human plans be set free to work on improving the human condition through the free associations and transactions of the competitive market place?
Millions of Minds Are Better than a Few Government Minds
Surely, a nation of millions of minds at work is far better than depending upon what a handful of minds of those in government can imagine, master and effectively manage and coordinate in better satisfying the wants, desires and needs of all in society.
This means that when advocates of government solutions to those social problems ask, "Well, what’s your plan?" the appropriate answer is, "I don’t believe or have confidence in a master plan to which all must conform."
In other words, we should say, "I want to ‘let go’ and set loose all the plans that may and will be designed by all the people in a free society, precisely because I know that the politicians and bureaucrats do not know enough to do it better for all of us."
We take it for granted that competitive markets filled with self-interested free men pursuing profit opportunities will give us new and improved televisions, cell phones, home appliances, more durable and wrinkle resistant shirts and pants and multitudes of other goods that year-in and year-out get better all the time.
This includes shoes of all conceivable styles, fashions, designs, sizes and price ranges to fit people’s pocketbooks. We should realize and emphasize that this can and will apply no less to people’s health insurance and medical requirements if we would just get government out of the way.
By whom and how will lower-cost health insurance policies and medical treatments get developed and introduced that reflect and serve the different needs of all the different people of the United States? I have no idea. And neither does anyone in Washington, DC.
That is why, as Hayek argued, freedom is so important. Neither you nor I nor the planners and regulators in government can know what someone will creatively come up with, if only he is left free to try and do so.
The Right to Your Own Life Comes First
These improvements in the human condition, however, are the useful and desirable results and often unintended consequences that can emerge only when each man is recognized and respected in his right to live for himself as a free person. It is that right to his own life and to live it as he thinks best that is the primary principle that brings about the secondary outcomes of all those social benefits of the competitive market place.
You want good quality and affordable healthcare? Then get government out of the healthcare business and leave people alone to solve their and other people’s problems through the self-interested pursuit of profit in the free market place.
February 21, 2014
Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB & T Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University. Was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation.