The Rationing Fallacy

Sheldon Richman writes:

[S]ome defenders of government control [of health care] acknowledge that rationing is the logical consequence of their ambition. They parry objections by saying in effect: “So we’ll have to ration. Big deal. We already have rationing—by the market.”

For example, Uwe Reinhardt, an economics professor and advocate of government-controlled medicine, writes, “In short, free markets are not an alternative to rationing. They are just one particular form of rationing. Ever since the Fall from Grace, human beings have had to ration everything not available in unlimited quantities, and market forces do most of the rationing.”

Sadly, interventionist economists are not the only economists who talk this way. Most free-market economists would agree that where there is scarcity there must be rationing and that the most efficient way to ration is by price, that is, through the market.

This is factually wrong and strategically ill-advised. As we’ll see, markets–even completely free markets–do not ration….

To see that the market does not ration one need only see that “the market” doesn’t do anything. To talk as if it does things is to reify the market—worse, it is to anthropomorphize the market, ascribing to it attributes — purposes, plans, and actions—that only human beings possess. We may also see this as another instance of literalizing a metaphor, which, as Thomas Szasz has so often warned, is fraught with peril.

I’m not saying that economists don’t realize this diction is a metaphor. Of course they do, and there’s no harm in using this shorthand among those who understand it as such. The problem, as I see it, is that the general public doesn’t fully grasp the metaphorical nature of these statements. For the sake of public understanding, free-market advocates should not welcome a debate in which they begin by saying, “Our method of rationing is better than your method of rationing.”

Better to respond to the interventionists this way: The market does not ration or allocate. The market does not do anything. It has no purposes or objectives. It is simply a legal framework in which people do things with their justly acquired property and their time in order to pursue their own purposes.

I once put it this way:

Economic goods are not rationed by price; price facilitates voluntary transactions between willing buyers and sellers in free markets. Rationing is what happens when a powerful authority (usually a government) steps in to dictate the organization of markets, the specification of goods, and — more extremely — who may buy what goods and at what prices (though dictated prices are essentially meaningless because they do not perform the signaling function that they do in free markets)….

I added:

How will … rationing entice doctors and hospitals to provide services that they are now unwilling to provide? If doctors leave the medical profession, and new doctors enter at reduced rates, what would [an advocate of rationing] do? Begin drafting students into medical schools? What about hospitals that refuse to conform? Would they be nationalized, along with their nurses, orderlies, etc.?

What a pretty picture: Soviet-style medicine here in the U.S. of A. Yet that it precisely where outright rationing will lead if the politburo in Washington sees a shrinking supply of doctors, hospitals, and other medical providers — as it will. Most politicians do not know how to do less. When they create a mess, their natural inclination is to do more of what they did to cause the mess in the first place.

Rationing (in peacetime, at least) is the last refuge of political scoundrels. It gives the appearance of solving a problem, while making it worse.

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