Dan Popp
Wealth and wellness
By Dan Popp
March 11, 2010

Primum non nocere — First, do no harm.

Prosperous people are healthier overall than poor people. Rich societies can afford things like better hospitals, quicker ways to transport the sick and injured to care centers, high-tech diagnostics, pricey drugs and pricier specialists. Industrialized, capitalist nations have better life-expectancy statistics than third-world dictatorships. Even common sense tells us that the more money we have, the more options we have; and the more options we have for preventing or solving health problems, the healthier we're likely to be.

"Healthy and wealthy" go together for the same reason that "poor and sickly" go together.

Before you dismiss this wealth/wellness connection as right-wing propaganda, consider that the theory's leading proponent is President Barack Obama. He speaks often of this link — though being a novice social engineer he mistakes the caboose for the engine. He believes that if he "fixes healthcare," that will "create jobs" and "boost the economy." Indeed, we can't dig ourselves out of our financial hole, he says, until we overhaul our healthcare system. He and I agree that our physical and financial well-being rise and fall together. We disagree about which is the cause and which is the effect.

It may be unusual to think of a bank balance or a GDP figure as an indicator of health. But "what's in your wallet" can outweigh other, more conventional health factors like nutrition, exercise, even genes. I'll grant any exceptions you like and still assert that our individual and national prosperity plays too large a role in our health to be completely ignored, as it has been in the discussion of (cough) "health care."

Since wealth does affect health, something else must be true: When government policies cause our economic situation to decline, our representatives are, in effect, making us sicker.

Let's assume that there really is a problem with health care in America — that tens of thousands of people are dying because they lack insurance policies. Death by non sequitur must be a horrible way to go. Still, a crucial question is whether the net effect of the proposed "solution" will be an increase or a decrease in everyone's standard of living, and thus in the quality and length of our lives.

It's possible that, through our well-intentioned plans, we could make a few people healthier by funneling benefits to them; and simultaneously make many people less healthy by draining the resources they could have used for staying or getting well. Politicians are infamous for this kind of solution: targeted, visible benefits — diffuse, hidden costs.

It's even possible that a particular person — let's call her Penny — would be both helped by specific government machinations, and harmed by the overall decline in wealth caused by the same laws, so that the effects cancel each other out.

One of the most insidious problems created by Command Medicine is the hazard of lost opportunities. If bureaucrats are inclined to pay for proven, affordable treatments, that bias will place a damper on new, temporarily expensive alternatives. We know that innovation will be harmed; we just don't know how much.

In this scenario, Penny personally gets government help, but the society she lives in produces fewer life-saving drugs and devices. The group as a whole is worse off, and since Penny is part of the group, she may be worse off, too.

Since wealthier is healthier, and since Congress unfortunately has the power to impact our national prosperity, the thing we as a free people cannot abide is an enormous removal of resources from the private sector that would leave us less well off, and therefore less well. If this disaster were dressed as a "health care" bill, it would set the new world standard for irony.

It was that infamous tea-partying terrorist John F. Kennedy who said, "Every time that we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders, and shift that problem to the hands of the government, to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of our people." When we shift the burden of our health to the government, we may be sacrificing more than our liberties. We may be sacrificing our prosperity, and therefore our health and our lives.

© Dan Popp


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