Sunday, January 8, 2012

Universal Health Care Would Liberate Free Enterprise

by Brian T. Lynch

There is a free market angle to the US health care debate that escaped media attention in the lead up to “Obamacare.” To little was said about how universal health care completely liberates entrepreneurship and benefits community based businesses.  The private health insurance industry, with its corporate friendly discounts, systematically handicaps small business owners and discourages enterprising individuals from striking out on their own.  Only larger companies and major corporations can afford health care benefits for their employees these days, thus attracting the best and brightest.  This gives them a competitive advantage over small businesses and tamps down potential competition.  The impact is hard to overstate.  Perhaps the point can best be made by considering a contrasting example. 

Whatever its flaws, real or exaggerated, the health care system in Canada is available to all residents.  It isn’t offered through employers or private insurance carriers and there’s no such thing as a “prior condition.” 

Clifford and Laura are a wonderful Canadian couple who live in Toronto.  They are beneficiaries of the Canadian health care system. Both are college educated and in their late fifties with two grown children.  When I first met Clif in the 1970’s, he worked for one of Canada’s national banks.  He had a handsome office on the 14th floor overlooking the Toronto skyline.  He received a good salary, his prospects for advancement were great… and he hated his job. 

What Clif really liked to do was work with his hands and make things from wood.  So he saved some money, quit the bank and set up a small shop making custom office cabinets and countertops.  It was difficult, but he stuck with it and made the best products he could until his business caught on.  It slowly grew to the point where he had to hire fulltime employees. Later on he shifted into making kitchen cabinets and then into a niche making high end European style kitchen cabinets.  He has made a very comfortable living.  More than that, he was able to follow his passion and is still doing what he loves. 

I never knew that universal health care played a role in Clif’s decision years ago.  The subject came up recently when he asked me to explain why universal health care was so contentious in the States.  As we talked I came to appreciate just how free Canadians are to pursue their own dreams, to hire employees when their businesses expand, and to let them go when business is bad.  Clif's decision to go into business was unimpeded by prohibitively high insurance costs or the potential financial disaster an injury or illness might cause when he started out.

When the private health insurance industry isn’t serving itself or its investors, it serves the interests of America’s largest companies by discouraging individual initiative and squeezing out small businesses with ever rising premiums.  I don’t know if this is by design, but is a fact that has profound consequences.

To take just one example, consider the hierarchy of career tracts that we market to students in our high schools. The grand vision is always “college prep” and the prospect of working for a major corporation that pays well and provides great benefits. So prominent is this college tract bias that all  alternative career paths carry some stigma.  Industrial arts students, for example, are often thought of as college-prep “drop outs” who are “placed” in a vocational track.  Seldom is it viewed as an equally legitimate and valuable career path for those gifted with mechanical abilities and a real desire to develop creative, hands-on talents.  This discounting of alternative careers is reinforced by the absence of universal health.

A large part of what drives our career choices is the fear of losing out on corporate benefits. Providing free and universal health care to all our citizens would liberate all the “Cliffors” of America to strike out on their own and create new businesses.  It would give small businesses a more level playing field on which to compete and give everyone else the comfort of knowing our health needs will always be met.

Any plans to reduce the influence of corporations in our daily lives should certainly include universal health care.  We are the last hold out in the industrialized world.

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