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The Pilgrims' lesson for today's health care debate

November 19, 2014

It is often said that if we don’t study history, we are condemned to repeat it. The Pilgrims of yesterday have a valuable lesson for Americans in today’s health care debate.

Many today do not know that the Pilgrims initially faced continuous famine of their own making. In his history of the colony, the Pilgrims’ long-time governor William Bradford described the crisis and the eventual solution.

The colony initially practiced a form of socialized agriculture in the belief that it put them all “on an equality throughout.” But, this didn’t produce enough food, so the Pilgrims decided to allow “each man to plant corn for his own household.”

Bradford wrote:

This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been…The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

Contrast the Pilgrims to today’s leaders in Washington, DC. The Pilgrim leaders chose to fundamentally change direction rather than rely on the collective to meet their needs. Facing the same choice today, President Obama and Congress are choosing the opposite course.

The health care bill voted out of the U.S. House is a case study in government collectivism. Every person would be compelled by government to buy health insurance. Subsidies would be taken from some to pay for others. Employers would be forced to provide health insurance or face harsh financial penalties. All of this would directly interfere with our freedom to make our own health care decisions.

The practice of medicine would also be more highly regulated than it already is. Government would create a National Health Service Corps and a Public Health Workforce Corps. Physicians would be prohibited from owning hospitals–that is like keeping mechanics from owning car repair shops. And medical practice would essentially be dictated by the government through comparative effectiveness research and other controls.

Yes, some might gain a measure of security from increased health care collectivization, but the American people will pay a steep price in terms of a rising deficit, the loss of freedom to make their own health care decisions, and a loss of overall quality and innovation in health care.

When the Pilgrims made individuals instead of the collective responsible for raising food, everybody won. Everybody ate more even as some were able to eat more than others. To have continued as they had, though, would have been disastrous.

The Pilgrims’ famine ended when they recognized the poor incentives they had created and changed them. We have created poor incentives in health care as tax policy and social programs encourage us to rely on others to pay our health bills. Now we are on the path to making incentives worse, not changing them.

We must change federal income tax policy to allow taxpayers to get the same tax deductions that employers get when buying health insurance. We should expand health savings accounts to allow unlimited saving for our own health care. And we should allow unlimited charitable tax-free distributions from those accounts when we choose to help others.

As William Bradford said, “Let none argue that this (failure of collectivism) is due to human failing rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself.” We have the ability to truly address the rising cost of health care in America, but a government-run health system is not it.

Byron Schlomach, Ph.D., is the director of the Goldwater Institute’s Center for Economic Prosperity.

Learn More:

Goldwater Institute: Removing the Middleman: What States Can Do to Make Health Care More Responsive to Patients

Goldwater Institute: States can set up federal fight on health care reform



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