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The Difference Between “Opportunity Cost” and “Rationing”; Or, Why Liberals Are Disingenuous Little Weasels Who Create Semantic Bedlam

August 30, 2009

A crucial part of the ongoing debate over ObamaCare centers over conservative’s (correct) assertion that government interference in the marketplace will inexorably lead to rationing.  

Bereft of the ability to claim that ObamaCare will not lead to rationing, liberals have instead decided to forgo reasoned debate to engage in one of their favorite pastimes: creating semantic bedlam.

Thus we are told that because everyone can’t have an unlimited supply of absolutely everything they want, the free market “rations”.  Ezra Klien is the latest leftist to attempt to mount this extraordinarily disingenuous argument in an article ambiguously titled–no joke–“We Ration.  We Ration.  We Ration.  We Ration.”  In case you’re wondering, this childish buffoon wants you get the idea that the free market “rations”:

“Look at Canada,” says Charles Krauthammer. “Look at Britain. They got hooked; now they ration. So will we.”

So do we. This is not an arguable proposition. It is not a difference of opinion, or a conversation about semantics. We ration. We ration without discussion, remorse or concern. We ration health care the way we ration other goods: We make it too expensive for everyone to afford.

Reason‘s Ronald Bailey quickly takes Klien to task for his “we ration” lunacy:

Like most left-leaning folks, Klein clearly doesn’t know the definition of rationing. Take this one from Britannica: 

Government allocation of scarce resources and consumer goods, usually adopted during wars, famines, or other national emergencies.

Klein evidently thinks that market outcomes that he dislikes mean that government should step in and impose outcomes that he does like. All right, let’s admit it; the health insurance market and the rest of health care are royally screwed up as a result of decades of government interventions and mandates. Consequently we don’t actually find the usual benefits of falling prices and improving products and services that we experience in normally operating markets where robust competition and choice reign. 

In case leftists still insist on fighting the increasingly protracted “the free market rations, too” war, let me go a little further.

Liberal err in that they rely on a definition of rationing that isn’t economic.  In economics, the term “rationing” refers specifically to government policy that restricts the availability of goods and services, usually during times of war, famine, or emergency. 

Yet and still, liberals insist upon using a more general definition of the word “rationing” that renders it practically meaningless.  Yes, liberals, there isn’t an infinite supply of everything you think your constituents ought to have; what’s your point?  Saying that rationing occurs in all market systems doesn’t prove any point at all, let alone the point that the government ought to be the one doing the “rationing”.  This is manifestly absurd.  Has anyone ever sat around the kitchen table and heard their mother ask, “who wants more rations”?  No one ever sees a hot new Dodge Viper and says, “boy, the Viper sure is one hot new ration”.  There’s a good reason they don’t.

When grown-ups use the term “rationing”, implicit in the definition is the fact that it is the government restricting access to resources.  When individuals or firms operating in the free market forgo the production or purchase of goods or services in order to produce or purchase other goods and services, or different quantities of goods and services, or–gasp!–even none at all, it’s referred to as “opportunity cost”.  The idea is: Whenever you make a decision to do one thing, you make a decision not to do a nearly infinite number of other things. 

But in liberals’ Candy Land world where every problem and question is answered by government, you can have whatever the hell you want–or rather, whatever the government thinks you ought to have. 

Liberals complain that everyone can’t have everything they ever want at once with a free market, but when a conservative attempts to bring ambition, desire, or motivation into the equation we are derided as being mean spirited, hard-hearted, or as any similarly worded group of pejoratives.  Again, I direct your attention to the idea of opportunity cost: by deciding to stand in pro-abortion rallies all day long, for example, people forgo the ability to go and be gainfully employed with any number of “jobs”, which might pay them enough money to be seen by a doctor whenever they feel their bleeding hearts are on the verge of exploding on account of inadequate wetland habitats for the Mexican Staring Frog of Southern Sri Lanka.  For those not comprehending, “jobs” are those three-letter word thingies that Biden says our economic crisis is all about.  For those genuinely ill-equipped to provide for their own cursory level of health insurance, there is the novel thing called “charity”–an incredibly effective institution men devised millenia ago to aid such individuals, which would do better were it not for constant government interference.  Failing that, there are government safety net programs already in place.  If they are inadequate to the task, it’s most certainly due to the manifest corruption and inefficiencies in the system–ironically due to the very fact that they are run by the government.  To paraphrase Ann Coulter, no one ever stood in line at a busy Wal Mart and thought, Gee!  I wish they’d get some civil service people in here!

At the risk of helping liberals formulate more persuasive arguments, I would suggest sticking to attempting to argue the merits of their bills, rather than trying to make a “same as that” argument about the free market and government.  Hey–maybe they could talk to the world’s only free-market hating economist extant!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Grant permalink
    August 30, 2009 8:22 am

    I love how Bailey declares Klein doesn’t know the definition of rationing then proceeds to pretend as if the only definition of rationing that exists is the rather highly specific form of “government rationing”.

    Rationing IN GENERAL however is the act of allocating scarce resources as if playing semantics makes the tiniest bit of difference in this discussion. “Oh, it’s only rationing if it’s *government* rationing, any other rationing isn’t REAL rationing.

    Yes, the US does ration health care, it just uses the market to perform the function. Feel free to call it “market allocation” instead of rationing if it makes you feel more warm and fuzzy about it but it’s the exact same damn thing and I’m about out of patience with people who insist on pretending it doesn’t happen. Tens of millions of people without insurance because they’ve been priced out of the system, tens of millions more so inadequately insured they’re looking at financial hardship or bankruptsy in the event of any serious medical issue, doctors having to ask insurance corporation accountants for permission to administer treatments or perform procedures a million times a day… what the HELL do you think rationing looks like anyway?

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