The EDA Center | at the University of Minnesota  
Commentaries on Greater Minnesota

Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.


What's so wrong with socialized medicine?
August 2009
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
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It's interesting to see that once again our public officials in Washington are discussing the establishment of a public health insurance option; and once again the voices of the status quo are arguing that we need to get the government out of health care and that the last thing we need is socialized medicine. It's an interesting refrain of an old and familiar song; but I'm not sure that as many people are singing along this time around.

First, for those who want the government out of health care, the reality is that ship sailed more than 40 years ago. If you simply add up Medicare, Medicaid, Indian Health Service, Veterans Administration and Railroad Retirement expenditures, you will discover that the government already pays more than 45% of the entire U.S. health care bill. Do we really want the government to bail out of these obligations? I don't think so.

But what about socialized medicine; we certainly don't want that, right? Well, I'm not so sure about that. What exactly is socialized medicine? Well as a card-carrying sociologist I will tell you from my perspective that socialism is when the government controls the industrial resources, or what Karl Marx called the "means of production." Remember back in the 1970's we scoffed at the Soviet Union's inefficient government-run agricultural cooperatives, where production was pathetically low and there were no market incentives to increase production or efficiencies. Through examples such as these, we collectively came to conclude that the private sector was not only superior, but that government was totally incompetent and couldn't organize a two-car funeral procession!

But the reality is that there are many services we want our government to control, right? When we call 911 do we want an emergency dispatch operator to first ask us whether we have "police insurance" and if so, what our policy number is? Heck no ... gets the cops here right now! But then why is it OK for such an exchange to occur in the hospital emergency room, but not on a 911 call? Does this suggest that we actually want socialized police protection, socialized fire protection, socialized water, socialized roads and bridges, socialized national defense, but not ... socialized medicine? And if so why?

Well the answer seems rather straightforward. While the free markets are optimal for the exchange of most goods and services, they don't really work well for society's essential services. Services such as police and fire protection, clean water, roads and bridges and national defense are so central and essential to our collective well-being that we decided to exempt these services from the marketplace. Rather, we prefer to collectively tax ourselves to ensure that we all have access to these essential services regardless of our ability to pay.

Last year a story in the Washington Post caught my eye. With the headline "Sick and Broke" it reported the results of a large scale study by researchers at Harvard University who interviewed more than 1,700 families that were in bankruptcy courts across the country. Their findings were that close to half of these families reported that illness and medical bills drove them into bankruptcy. And the biggest surprise of all was that three-quarters of these medically bankrupt families had health insurance. Their conclusion was that a middle class lifestyle; a good education and a decent job will not necessarily safeguard you from these unfortunate events. Many of the families interviewed were precisely in this position ... until illness struck. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor noted that the problem was not in our nation's bankruptcy laws, but rather with our health care finance system and our endless debate about reforming it.

I may just be getting soft-headed, but I can't believe that we have evolved to the point as a nation where an upstanding citizen can do everything right, i.e., raise their kids, stay out of trouble, pay their taxes, be a good neighbor, save for retirement; only to have it all disappear due to illness. I'm sorry - if that's the case then the system is definitely broke and the status quo simply has to go.

So the real question here is when will enough Americans come to the conclusion that access to health care is an essential service? It's a conclusion that every other industrialized nation has already come to. And when we as Americans collectively arrive at that point we just may begin to wonder ... so what's so wrong with socialized medicine?

Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at

This document was prepared by the University of Minnesota, Crookston under award number 06-66-05709 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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