Friday, February 17, 2012

The Free Market Military

The defense of our nation and its interests is of such crucial importance that we devote upwards of 600 billion dollars to it annually. It is considered an indispensable service although its budget is theoretically almost infinitely variable based on present and projected future needs. Military spending has been part of the total federal budge for a couple of centuries. It's not going away any time soon.

The defense of the health of individual citizens is largely left up to the individual. The fact that "a good job" included "benefits" during the later half of the 20th Century masked the fact that individuals had no guaranteed protection. During a time when jobs with benefits seemed plentiful and easy to find, anyone changing jobs would expect to hear about the new coverage replacing their old coverage as a routine part of the transition. People did fall through the cracks, but the cracks were masked like snow-covered crevasses. The glacial metaphor is apt because, as the system fails, the ice coverage shrinks drastically, leaving more and more people either on thin ice or standing disconsolately on the mud.

As victims of a market-based system we are told we can shop around. As private insurance is reshaped we will get to select from a much wider menu of flawed solutions worded in confusing ways to mask the corporate profit that motivates insurance companies to dabble in medical care in the first place.

For various reasons, most of them not good, a lot of people are tempted to turn national defense over to private contractors because the private sector is ever so much more efficient than the dumb ol' government. It works as a metaphor but not as a real-world solution. For it to work properly as a free market, we would have to shop around for the best deal. When the country was attacked we would have to send out a request for bids, sift through the applications and choose what appeared to be the best one. It's perfectly analogous to the process of shopping for medical care and coverage when faced with a serious disease that might be advancing rapidly, like a hostile army.

A taxpayer-funded, government-run military service is accountable directly to the citizen government in ways a free-market pool of militaristic contractors is not. We tell our fighting forces to take pride in their training and the traditions of excellence attached to each branch of the service. Why not call on a similar devotion and fighting spirit in our medical forces? Create the image and then live up to it. Fund it as a social necessity like defense. Let medical contractors vie for lucrative government contracts. Make the war on ill health as high a priority as the war on real and imagined adversaries around the globe, for which we develop sophisticated weapons apparently with little regard for the cost. Huge salaries and bloated retirement packages in any part of the private sector can't be used as incentives for much longer. A solid income and a decent retirement as a government doctor or nurse might start to look pretty good to the medically inclined. And ordinary citizens would not have to make the decision to commit slow or rapid suicide rather than get regular medical checkups and take care of things in a timely fashion as they occur.

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