The computer business is a prime example of the cut-throat competition that American history books and reformers warn us against.
Predatory companies like Microsoft, Intel, AOL and Apple relentlessly pursue bigger and bigger markets with no thought of the consequences – concerned only to fatten the bottom line. There is no special government regulation controlling computer hardware or software, so computer companies can do pretty much anything they want.
At the same time, areas like health care and education are rigorously controlled by government. Government operates most of our education system and it sets the rules for health care. In addition, over 50 percent of all health-care dollars spent in America are spent by governments – and almost half the rest of the dollars are spent through companies like HMOs that were virtually created by government legislation.
Does it make a difference whether companies are free to be predators or are strictly regulated? Let’s see.
How the predators operate
In the wide open, dog-eat-dog computer industry, unsupervised by government, chaos seems to reign. But that chaos does have its benefits.
Today for $1,500 I can buy a computer that is 50 times faster and more powerful than the model I paid $8,000 for a little over a decade ago. I can buy hard-disk data storage for about 1 percent of what comparable storage cost 10 years ago.
I can log onto the Internet and have access to hundreds of millions of websites, and I no longer pay the expensive minute-by-minute charges that it cost me 10 years ago.
In addition, operating a computer has become immeasurably easier – as companies have made the computer’s features much more accessible through easy-to-understand menus and icons, replacing the cryptic commands I once had to remember to type.
I can even take a small, handy computer on an airplane and get a lot of work done during a time I would otherwise be immobilized.
This is what the predatory, dog-eat-dog, Wild-West, unsupervised computer industry has done for me in just the last decade.
Meanwhile, what’s happened to health care during those 10 years?
Because health care is considered too important to leave to the unregulated free market, it is rigorously supervised by politicians. They have brought us Medicare, Medicaid, billions of government research dollars and new legislation every year to regulate health-insurance companies and HMOs. Federal regulation runs to hundreds of thousands of pages.
Has this reduced the price of health care?
No. Every year it becomes more expensive, less user-friendly, more inaccessible – causing well-meaning politicians (and those of the other kind) to impose even more regulations.
If the health-care industry had gone through what the computer industry has experienced, today you might have health-care-at-home, prescriptions that cost a dollar or two, and surgery for only $100 – making health insurance unnecessary except for catastrophic events.
Does that seem far-fetched? It shouldn’t. That’s what health care was like before the federal government started to intervene in the 1960s.
And how have the well-meaning reformers succeeded with education?
Politicians like George W. Bush, Al Gore, and others say our schools are a mess.
Here’s how Vice President Gore described the situation in 1999:
The teachers are overburdened. The classrooms are overcrowded. The buildings are falling down. The reform agenda is underfunded.
Far from becoming less expensive, every year the schools cost us more and more. And President Bush has proposed numerous ways to make them even more expensive.
What would the schools be like if government got completely out of the picture – and education was in a free market like computers?
Competition among private companies could produce teaching systems that allowed your child to learn more in two or three hours a day than he does now in six or seven. Learning would be far more fun and user-friendly – inspiring your child to pursue additional studies on his own.
You would have a wide range of choices available – not just government schools or private schools that submitted to the regulations that come with government vouchers.
Instead, your choices would seem virtually infinite. You could choose between sex education or no sex education, basics vs. frills, sports or music, phonics or look-see, traditional arithmetic or the New Math, and on and on. You undoubtedly could get a custom curriculum tailored specifically for your child – just as you can get a custom-made computer today.
If you didn’t know how to make such choices, you could instead pick from among dozens of advisors who would help you select the appropriate options for your child.
And all this probably would cost just a small fraction of the thousands of dollars a year you pay now in school taxes.
The biggest choice of all
America needs to choose between two ways of organizing business:
We leave all business, health care, and education to the unregulated free market – to the predators who will pursue their profits relentlessly. Sometimes those predators will do things we frown on, but we will never be forced to deal with anyone we don’t like. Or …
We transform the computer business and any other remaining elements of the free market into equivalents of today’s health care and education. We allow the politicians to regulate, to choose what a company can sell, to decide what a fair price is, to set the rules, to approve all major business decisions.
It may seem that there’s a third choice – to simply leave things as they are now. But that’s really choosing No. 2, because “things as they are now” are progressing inexorably toward No. 2.
You either swallow your pride, leave Microsoft and other computer companies alone, and push to get government completely out of health care and education – or you sit back and wait for government to take the expertise it has applied to health care and education and apply it to computers, food, automobiles, telephones, and the other areas in which we have enjoyed so much.