Star Trek: Voyager and The Problems With Socialized Medicine
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Last month Aetna, the third largest health insurer in the nation, announced that it will be pulling out of 11 out of the 15 states where it currently participates in Obamacare coverage. They have already lost nearly half a billion dollars by participating in Obama’s little experiment with socialized medicine, and they are not alone. Aetna’s decision came closely following similar announcements by Humana and UnitedHealth Group. Only Cigna appears to be expanding coverage, despite losing money.
The total collapse of Obamacare appears to be happening before our eyes. I don’t think even Obama’s biggest critics expected it to fail this quickly. You might think that those who supported a little touch of Socialism would realize their mistake, but you would be wrong. Those greedy non-profits obviously just want to screw poor sick people! This is clearly a failure of capitalism! If a little Socialism doesn’t work, how about a whole lot more? Onward to SINGLE PAYER!
A few days ago I was binge watching Star Trek (as I am wont to do), and happened to watch an episode of Voyager that perfectly displayed the problems with centralized health care. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I find an episode of Star Trek that addresses the problems with Socialism. The Federation is often held up as a model for Socialism. Of course, it isn’t hard to have Utopian Socialism in a fictional post-scarcity society.
In a previous article I wrote about an episode of Deep Space Nine, and the wonders of capitalism. DS9 is special because it is essentially a capitalist city under Federation occupation. Many different cultures mingle, and monetary exchanges are common. Voyager is also special because they have to address the problem of scarcity. The series follows a ship stranded far from home. They do not have unlimited energy, they cannot simply “replicate” whatever they need, and they have to barter and trade with other cultures. The Starship Voyager is like a Socialist commune, or a small military dictatorship, floating through space.
In this particular episode (Season 7, Episode 5: Critical Care), a shifty salesman manages to kidnap the holographic doctor who patches up the Voyager’s crew. The Doctor is forced to provide medical care on a planet with a single payer health care system, while Voyager retraces the many shady transactions of the traveling con artist.
If an individual has a “right” to health care, then why not kidnap and enslave a medical professional? Initially, the holographic Doctor on Voyager refuses to cooperate, but he can’t just watch patients suffer. The Doctor is given orders by a computer, which manages resources. Rather than allowing economic calculations to determine the value of medical commodities, the computer calculates the value of the patient. Individuals deemed more “necessary” are given whatever they need.
In the episode, a hypothetical drug called “cytoglobin” can be both used to treat a viral infection, and to extend life. The elites are given daily injections, while children (who have never had the opportunity to prove their worth) die waiting for the small amount needed to treat their disease. Their society, like many Communist countries, operates based on a “caste” system. The child in question is the son of a refinery worker, although he wishes to become a doctor. He is deemed less important than the political class, and presumably their offspring.
In a free society, “cytoglobin” might be expensive. Imagine that it was $1000 per injection. A child’s family might happily take up a collection to obtain the $6000 necessary to cure a disease. Very few people would be able to afford a daily dose. If demand was high enough for the drug, alternatives might be developed. The industry of cytoglobin production would expand until it the price was reduced enough for the viral infection to be completely eradicated.
The boy on the show is cured by the Doctor, who “reallocates” the necessary drugs to treat his illness. When the subterfuge is detected and he is confronted by his superior, the Doctor points out that demand for the drug has dropped by 6% since last month. He credits the efficient management of the section of the hospital dedicated to the social elites, and suggests that by allowing him to waste some resources his superiors can avoid having their alloted resources cut. This is a real world problem in government. Budget surpluses must be avoided, to avoid budget reductions.
The centralized authority overseeing the hospital says that he was brought in to “make the hard choices” and “save a society”. He considers killing off the poor and weak to be part of his job description, and arranges the death of the boy that the Doctor had saved. The rationing of health care is used to eliminate “undesirables”, just as it could be in a real world single payer system.
The overseer is kidnapped by the Doctor, infected with the virus, and placed in the part of the hospital used to treat the common patients. Even when he is recognized as a member of the political class, he is refused treatment. He is only cured when he agrees to abandon the caste system used to triage patients. The holographic Doctor later questions his own actions, asking for a diagnostic to be run on his ethical subroutines. He compares his actions, placing the collective above the individual, to be reminiscent of the Borg (who I consider to be a Trek allegory for Communism, but that’s a whole other article).
What the Doctor never pieces together is that the collective good of a society can only come through individual freedom. If a centralized authority is given the power to restrict services, health care or otherwise, then the political class will be given privilege. This has happened in every Communist society. People reliably act in their own self interest. To expect government administrators to behave differently, or to somehow eliminate scarcity, is insane.
Unfortunately, no amount of screaming about “how it should be” will ever make it so, and centralized authoritarian control will not magically solve all of our problems. The price system serves a very valuable role in health care, as it does in every industry. As supply drops or demand goes up, prices increase. As supply booms or demand falls off, prices drop. High prices create incentives for entrepreneurs to enter the market and increase the supply, which drops the price. Low prices drive consumers toward abundant, rather than scarce resources. Without the price system, economic calculations cannot occur, and resources will not be managed responsibly.
Star Trek may not be a great source for libertarian propaganda, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. I’ve always loved Star Trek, but I understand why it frustrates many of my friends. We have all seen memes floating around declaring that we could be flying around in space ships if only “muh Socialism”. In spite of this, it will be pointed out by my critics that this is just fiction, and that the atrocities committed by the health care bureaucrats on this episode of Voyager don’t represent real world problems in the current year. Governments have committed atrocities many times in the past, however. They still do today, and will again in the future, if we grant them the power.Email This Post