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The Problem with the ‘Otherwise, People Will Die’ Argument for Big Government

Michael D. Tanner

It has become the go-to policy argument for many liberals and
the media: People will die. Repeal Obamacare … and people will
die. Cut any social-welfare program by so much as $1 … and people
will die. Reform unsustainable entitlement programs like Social
Security and Medicare, and, you guessed it, people will die.

While in some cases this argument is debatable and in others
it’s ridiculous, it is always politically potent. Who wants to
argue about economic incentives when lives are at stake?

The reality, born out by
hundreds, if not thousands, of years of experience, is that
economic growth does more to save lives than any government program
ever could.

In the bigger picture, though, it gets things exactly wrong. The
reality, born out by hundreds, if not thousands, of years of
experience, is that economic growth does more to save lives than
any government program ever could. After all, nothing, except maybe
war, kills like poverty. Yet poverty globally is at an all-time
low. And, as a result, life expectancies have soared. A century
ago, the average person could expect to live to around 54 years
old. A boy born today can expect to live to be 76, and a girl can
expect to live about five years longer than that.

Consider what daily life is like in this country today compared
to just just 100 years ago. By every measure we are better off.
Even the poor today have access to goods and services that were
undreamed of by the rich not so long ago. As recently as the 1960s,
for instance, nearly a third of poor households had no telephone.
Today, telephone ownership is nearly universal. Roughly half of
poor households own a computer, more than 98 percent have a
television, and two-thirds have two or more TVs. In 1970, less than
half of all poor people had a car; today, two-thirds do.

It is not government that has brought all this progress about,
but the economic growth that comes from free-market capitalism. As
the economist Deidre McClosky points out, if all the profits
generated by American businesses were immediately handed over to
“the workers,” those workers would be roughly 20 percent better off
than they are today. On the other hand, the rise in real wages
since, say, 1800, has made workers roughly 9,900 percent better
off.

Not only do we know the benefits of economic growth, but we also
know what leads to it: the rule of law, a stable currency, free
trade, liberal labor policies, and limited government intervention.
Policies — such as high taxes, out-of-control spending, and
excessive regulation — that slow economic growth may do far
more harm than good. One might even say that those policies mean
people will die, reductive though such an argument would be.

Too often, advocates of big government look only at one side of
the equation: They see the theoretical benefits of whatever program
they are proposing while ignoring the costs it will impose on the
economy.

Some 250 years ago, the French economist and philosopher
Frederic Bastiat referred to the example of a farmer who plans to
hire a worker to dig a ditch on his property, but is unable to do
so because the money he’d have used to pay the ditch-digger went
instead to pay taxes. A government bureaucrat is able to use those
taxes to spend on various projects. Of course, everyone can see the
results of that spending, which undoubtedly makes the bureaucrat
popular. But what goes unseen is the loss suffered by the poor
ditch digger.

In fact, he might even die.

Michael
Tanner
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author
of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement
Crisis.