Further Reply to Matt: Who is "We"?
By David Henderson
Like some commenters, I found Bryan Caplan’s post on health care today to be one of his best. And he’s already set a high bar. But, believe it or not, given that Bryan is a more-radical libertarian than I am, I think he sold freedom short.
In his point #1, Bryan wrote:
If the problem with free-market health care is just that poor people can’t afford health care, then the smart response is simply to give poor people more money (or possibly a cash voucher), and leave insurance companies alone. Think about how we usually handle hunger among the poor. We don’t set up byzantine regulations for grocery stores. We give the poor welfare checks and/or food stamps, and leave the grocery stories alone.
His first sentence is absolutely correct. The smart response is to give them more money or health care vouchers. But in the last three sentences, he used the word “we” where he really meant “the government.” The government is not us. It’s some of us, but it’s not us. Many of us do give money to poor people to provide various things and, as Russell Roberts documents in his article on Charity, a large fraction of charitable contributions, before the government started massive welfare programs in the 1930s, was to poor people. Notice Russ’s Table 1 showing that as the Great Depression deepened before the New Deal, charitable contributions to poor people rose. Government welfare rose too but it rose massively during the first years of the New Deal and then charitable contributions to poor people fell.
Because Bryan used “we” where he meant “the government,” he got himself in a box with his point #4. He wrote:
My most controversial point: While redistribution is the most logical response to the health market’s performance, I still oppose it. In the grand scheme of things, poor people in the First World are doing fine.
What happened to his idea that the smart thing to do is to give poor people money or health care vouchers? Did it quit being the smart thing to do? It’s clear from context that by “redistribution,” Bryan meant forced distribution by government. I oppose it too. And here’s where I think he sold freedom short. If he hadn’t used “we” to mean the government but had instead used it to mean “Americans” or “people who live in America,” then he wouldn’t have had to take the position he took in the part of point #4 that I quoted above. If Bryan opposes giving money to poor people in America, then, fine, he doesn’t have to and, if he so chooses, he can persuade other people not to. But there will be some of us who still want to give money to poor people in America knowing full well that Bryan is right that we are helping people who, in the larger picture, are already quite wealthy. That’s what’s so great about freedom: everyone can choose whom to help and whom not to.