[June 22, 2003]

Economics Lesson in a Kit

By Wayne Dunn

Who'd have thought an inanimate object could teach a lesson in economics?

Yet that's exactly what a first-aid kit did. Several kits actually, wall-mounted cabinets in the buildings where I work.

Now we're not just talking band-aids and iodine here. No, these babies had extra-strength aspirin, cough medicines, antacids– sort of a mini-pharmacy, free for the taking.

And take people did. They took and took and took some more. Heck, even the lady who fills our soft drink machines was sighted helping herself to the throat lozenges. Seems free stuff has a certain attraction.

Of course, the kits always needed restocking. Popular items added one day would be gone the next. Our little system was rife with abuse.

So controls were established. On top of other duties, supervisors had to monitor those darned kits, to scrutinize users, ration a bit.

But that didn't do the trick. Why would it? No one there had to foot the bill.

Bottom line, the company's first-aid budget was hemorrhaging, so management applied a tourniquet. Now there's only basics – gauze, peroxide, things for emergencies.

Of course, some workers cried foul. Poor souls had contracted "entitlement pox," a handout-related disease. Too bad there's no cure in the kit for that.

Certainly the "medicine cabinet" problem pales alongside other issues management deals with. Still, it made me think. It struck me that the situation wouldn't have played out much differently if instead of free supplies in a first-aid kit, the freebies had been the inventory of a whole pharmacy or, for that matter, free access to the equipment and talents of an entire hospital and staff.

"Free" goods find no shortage of takers. The takers, however, soon find a shortage of such goods. Enter red tape, rationing, budget overruns, cost increases, and steadily declining services.

What happened with the first aid kits is a microcosm of what happens under socialized medicine (or socialized anything), albeit with a vital distinction: A company (or individual) has every right to be as free-wheeling or as tight as it chooses with its own resources. But government, by contrast, possesses no resources that aren't first expropriated from people's earnings. Such is the nature of its "generosity."

Take Mexico's, for example. It has "free" health care. So free it cost my wife, born there, $65 a month, six percent of an already meager and heavily taxed salary. What'd it all buy? Well, when taken to a public hospital after being badly jarred in a car accident, for example, the doctor merely examined her paperwork (not her person) and sent her away with some aspirin. (She then went to a private hospital and bought proper treatment.)

Socialism forces people to pay for what it causes not to work. Therefore it's both immoral and impractical: Immoral because it's force. Impractical because it flops.

Indeed, the outcome of socialization is exactly opposite the alleged intent. Chides Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic after communism's fall in the former Yugoslavia: "Dental care has been free for over forty years" with the result that "the whole nation had bad teeth." 1

"Free" health coverage in America – what we're stumbling toward – would transform the world's best health care into the nationwide equivalent of an expensive but sparsely stocked first-aid kit.

Aspirin and a toothless grin, anyone?


1 Drakulic, Slavenka. 1996. Café Europa: Life After Communism, Penguin Books. P. 130.


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© COPYRIGHT 2003 by Wayne Dunn