Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Stephen Bourque makes some incisive commentary about a recent change in the government's recommendations on the timing and frequency of breast cancer screening. His post deserves a full read, but one paragraph in particular caught my eye:
It has always amazed me how much trust the general public puts in government recommendations of this sort. The group in this case, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, is characterized as an "independent panel of experts in prevention and private care appointed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services." But what exactly is this group independent of? The implication is that they are independent of individuals and corporations that have a vested interest in the guidelines. However, what the panel is entirely dependent upon for its existence is the federal government, an institution that has absolutely no incentive to meet consumer demands. The panel is independent of responsibility and accountability. [minor format edits]I suspect that the amazement may be at least partially rhetorical, but it is worth noting where such blind trust originated and considering its full ramifications. The above paragraph reminded me of the following warning from an essay by Alan Greenspan in his better, younger days:
To paraphrase Gresham's Law: bad "protection" drives out good. The attempt to protect the consumer by force undercuts the protection he gets from incentive. First, it undercuts the value of reputation by placing the reputable company on the same basis as the unknown, the newcomer, or the fly-by-nighter. It declares, in effect, that all are equally suspect... Second it grants an automatic (though, in fact, unachievable) guarantee of safety to the products of any company that complies with its arbitrarily set minimum standards. The value of a reputation rested on the fact that it was necessary for the consumers to exercise judgment in the choice of the goods and services they purchased. ... [bold added] ("The Assault on Integrity" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pp. 119-120)In other words, over the past few decades, people have become less and less accustomed to acting as their own "consumer watchdogs" even as the government slowly gobbled up larger and larger swaths of the medical and scientific sectors, slowly making the independent advice of scientists to the government less so. Consider this the informational equivalent of the illusory "access" to medical care the Democrats are promising us.
This affects everyone and even confounds the efforts of those of us who are inclined to distrust the government to establish our own opinions on medical matters. For example, at the site Quack Watch is a list of "Twenty-Five Ways to Spot Quacks and Vitamin Pushers." Reading through the list, I noticed that ten of the items on the list (1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 18, 21, 23, 24, and 25) included reliance on the government in some way: e.g., mentioning government nutritional guidelines, alluding to the role of the government in regulating the practice of medicine, or linking to a government web site.
Of course, since the government funds so much research and "educates" so many people about science, the truth is that every single item on the list is affected in some way by government interference in the economy: Both the information under consideration as well as the ability of an average person to evaluate it have often been undermined from the start.
The immediately possible debacle of a government takeover of the medical sector would be a bad enough pit for America to have to have to climb out of, but the truth is that we need only turn around for a moment to see that we are already in another.