Published in Capitalism Magazine and Nashville Business Journal

[January 10, 2004]

A New Prescription For Cutting Costs

By Wayne Dunn

The solution to the high cost of prescription drugs, we are told by Democrats and Republicans alike, is more government intervention.

Well, if we're going to use government muscle to lower our medical expenses, why not go all the way?

Thus my proposal: Outlaw prescription drugs.

Yes, by wiping out that whole sector and leaving only current over-the-counter products available, the expenditure on prescription drugs will of course fall to zero.

That means that for a fraction of what your Aunt Edna spends on painkillers to make her bad back bearable, she can simply buy aspirin. It means Grandpa will no longer have to shell out $300 a pop for the heart medicine that keeps him alive, because it won't exist. Think of the savings!

Yet there are more advantages to this plan than just cost reduction. It also means more jobs in the funeral industry. American jobs, no less! This should delight the labor unions.

But beyond such "materialistic" matters as money and jobs, there's the moral dimension of my proposal. We're all familiar with the accusation commonly hurled at pharmaceutical companies: they're "greedy" and concerned only for their own selfish interest. Well, my plan would make the accusers practice what they preach: For if corporations' "selfishness" for wanting high profits requires remedy, then so does consumers' "selfishness" for wanting low prices.

Outlawing prescription drugs would make the self-interest bashers feel the effects of their "moral" code on their own hides. There'd be no medicine around for them to greedily demand for free!

Somehow, though, I don't think my proposal would garner much support. But, in truth, it would simply achieve overnight what the much-ballyhooed Medicare prescription drug bill will achieve over time: the end of quality medicine.

Ironically, it's the alleged defenders of capitalism, the Republicans, who are ushering in this massive new expansion of the welfare state. Of course they say the bill has some "free market" aspects. But that's like saying it's okay to drink poison if there's a few drops of pure water mixed in.

The "free market" will end up being the fall guy for the failings of what's actually a very hampered market. The Medicare drug bill contains just enough "privatization" provisos for congressional Republicans to fool themselves into believing they're not advancing socialism -- which is also just enough for their opponents to pin the blame on capitalism when the program "needs to be saved" in a year or two.

With Uncle Sam the de facto 3rd party provider of seniors' prescription drugs, costs will skyrocket. Politicians, ever ignorant of sound economic principles, will likely respond by capping prices. That will beget shortages, which governments typically "cure" with rationing.

Drug companies would have long since lost any incentive to develop cutting edge drugs, because it just wouldn't be profitable.

Averting such disaster requires not more control but more freedom. That is, it requires booting government completely out of the health care business so that market forces can fully be brought to bear.

Just as the computer industry has made breathtaking leaps at ever-lower costs to consumers, so too could the health care industry were it similarly unfettered.


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© COPYRIGHT 2004 by Wayne Dunn