Professionally, I write about health care financing and public health through the lens of law and economics. I challenge my students and readers to examine their discomfort with thinking of health care in market-based principles of supply and demand, Adam Smith's invisible hand, goods to the highest bidder, and moral hazard. Health care, I urge, is a scarce resource -- like soil, timber, fossil fuels, and water -- that must allocated among a population of people, whether on market-based or other principles of rationing. As I have recently written, health care, like any other public good, presents a potential tragedy of the commons as individual interests and usage threaten to deplete the common pool.
Many people, especially well-intentioned, liberally minded people like those in attendance this past weekend, tend to find application of economics to health care uncomfortable if not outrageous. Health care is a human right, an entitlement. It is scandalous, as a modern, industrialized society, the richest nation in the world, that we cannot provide health care for our entire population. The panacea, as Michael Moore so colorfully urged in his docu-tainment movie, Sicko, is government-sponsored or organized universal health care.
What stuck me, at the Prairie Festival, were speakers' embrace, in the context of conservationism, of language and ideas of the conservative health care reform agenda. One speaker talked of the importance of "individual responsibility," a fundamental tenet of Governor Romney's individual health insurance mandate and Senator McCain's market-based health care reform. Repeated references were made to Jevon's Pardox, which suggests that improving the efficiency with which a resource is produced or used has the tendency to increase, rather than decrease, its consumption. I struggled to find the paradox: Of course, efficiency results in lower cost to supply a good, and thereby lower price to sell the good, which causes demand for the good to increase; that's elementary supply and demand. Then it dawned on me that they weren't describing an economic paradox, but a conservation paradox.
One speaker went so far as to tout, mostly for purposes of illustration, the merits of World War II-era rationing, under which rich and poor alike received the same basic allotment of gasoline and food, with which to make do, or learn to do without. The lesson borrowed into the conservationism discussion seemed to be that we could, if we thought about it and tried a little harder, make do with less or without that we now consider essential.
I wondered, as I listened to the strong, earnest rhetoric, why efficiency, individual responsibility, and rationing connote noble, progressive ways of thinking about conserving natural resources, like land and water, but evoke dispassionate, hard-nosed conservative notions of reforming health care. Is there a way for the health care debate to recapture the language and literature of conservationism?