Not free ... and that misses the point

Posted

Dear Editor,
Let’s talk about free stuff for a minute. As in, “no one has a right to free health care or higher education.”
As a communications professional who focuses on the interface of public policy and public relations, it’s apparent that the debate over how we, as a society, pay for healthcare and college has gone off the rails.
On one side are libertarians, and fiscal and social conservatives who see this talk of free services as another step to full-on socialism. On the other are progressives who see health and education as vital to a sane, civilized society. There’s a lot of stuff in between, of course, and an incredible amount of misconception on all sides but let’s keep it as simple as we can.
As the late Robert Heinlein put it, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. It’s as true today as it was in the early 1960s when he coined that phrase. Not even the most fervent dreams of a died-in-the-wool socialist can side-step that basic fact of economics.
But what the political right seems to miss in this debate is that this applies to everything society touches. Everything costs something. Nothing is free.
For instance, it takes money to build and maintain city streets and provide clean water. Professional police and fire departments are expensive efforts. Somebody pays for all of that, too. If you think your local property taxes and municipal utility bill pays the full freight for those services, you are sadly mistaken.
Still, when was the last time a police officer handed you a bill for investigating a crime on your property? Or for stopping a speeder before he drove recklessly through your neighborhood? Did the fire chief bill the owner of that house up the street that burned down last night ... or the neighbors for protecting them from that fire?
No. Because police and fire protection are vital public goods. In Texas, we pay for them, in part, through our property and sales taxes. Whether or not you agree with the way we pay for public services, it’s an economic fact that the more broadly we can spread the burden, the lower the burden is on individuals.
It seems to me that progressives are trying very hard (though not especially effectively) to redefine health care and education as public goods instead of elective activities. If those are successfully redefined, they become supported by society at large instead of as individual endeavors.
Right now, those two systems are among the most expensive in the industrial world. Health care sucks out one-sixth of our GDP — more than twice that of any other first-world country — and our citizens are burdened with $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. Yet, for all that money, we have the worst health outcomes of any other first-world country (largely because our for-profit system has the worst health care delivery system in the world) and college students begin their career with crushing debt that many will never be able to fully repay.
A tax supported health care system would see health care premiums virtually evaporate in favor of a higher tax bill. There are other reforms necessary (runaway drug costs, absolute transparency in pricing) but most studies show that individuals — and businesses — will pay far less in additional taxes for a single-payer system than we currently pay for premiums and co-pays under our bloated for-profit health care scheme.
Education would be similar. While I can’t imagine that places like Harvard or Rice would be on the list of tax-supported education providers, I can easily imagine that taxes could subsidize tuition to community colleges and trade schools.
There is no such thing as a free lunch. But, if we pool our resources, no one goes hungry, or misses out on education beyond high school, or goes bankrupt after a cancer diagnosis.
Richard Stone
Former Texas newspaper publisher
Principal consultant for RTS Connect LLC

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