As Americans gaze longingly across the Atlantic at the socialist paradises of Western Europe, they listen hopefully to the words of Barack Obama and dream of the establishment of a similar paradise in America. To many observing from afar the European model of economic socialism indeed seems idyllic. Free healthcare, guaranteed income, weeks of vacation time, short workweeks, full pay unemployment, what’s not to like?
Many things at first glance, or when viewed from a distance look perfect, but when observed with more scrutiny blemishes and defects begin to show up. Do you like the artwork in the header for this blog? It’s my favorite piece of revolutionary period art. However if you look closely about a half-inch up from the bottom along the left edge you will notice a rip in the original print extending across two of the faces.
That’s a good metaphor for socialism. It looks good at first glance or from a distance, but when you live with it up close and personal for a while, it no longer looks so good. I have been hearing about the free health care in Great Britain for most of my life. Only in the last few years have I begun hearing about the long waiting lists, shortages of doctors, and more recently the practice of “stacking”, where emergency room patients are kept waiting in ambulances in the parking lot for hours before receiving treatment. Stacking allows hospitals to comply with a British law requiring all patients to be treated within four hours. Since the required time limit does not begin until the patient has been admitted, keeping them waiting outside the hospital rather than inside postpones the waiting time restrictions.
I have been unable to find reliable statistics on the number of deaths that occur in the British system between the time a patient gets a referral to a specialist or surgeon for a serious ailment and the time they actually get the needed surgery or other treatment. The anecdotal evidence indicates the number is quite high, however. Much of the waiting time in the British healthcare system is deliberate rationing to help control cost and compensate for the shortage of health care workers. A high percentage of patients get well on their own and a smaller percentage die before getting the health care they seek thus saving the government the cost of treating them.
Another source of envy for many Americans is the short workweek and extended vacations enjoyed by workers in France. Within just the last month, the law limiting the workweek to thirty-five hours had to be repealed because it was placing too much cost on employers and seriously affecting productivity. For the first time in almost a decade, workers can now work longer hours and earn a bigger paycheck. The law was originally passed in 1999 as a way of reducing France’s chronic high unemployment. As with most socialist programs instituted by governments to “fix” problems, the unintended consequences proved to outweigh the benefits.
Still another model often held up as an example of the benefits of socialism is Scandinavia, especially Sweden. Sweden has the world’s highest standard of living, the most progressive education system, free health care, low or almost non-existent unemployment as low as 2%. Before you make a dash for the Swedish embassy to apply for a visa you should know, however, that that is the Chamber of Commerce version we see from afar. Up close, things look quite differently. There is nothing wrong with the numbers, its just how the measurements are taken.
For example, how do you measure a standard of living? In the Swedish calculation, it refers to the measure of equality in wealth redistribution. In other words, it measures the success in implementing socialism more so than the actual living standard of the people. When the standard of living is measured using the buying power of the average income, the number of people engaged in gainful employment, or Gross National Product the standard of living figures drop considerably. In the year 2000, the median household income in Sweden was $26,800 in U.S. dollars. In the U.S., the median household income was $39,400. That’s gross, before taxes.
“How about the 2% unemployment rate“, you ask. In Sweden, a worker can earn up to 2.2 paid days off for every one day worked. That means they can earn up to 570 paid days off in a single year, therefore they can take off two years plus with full pay. That’s one of the ways Sweden hides their true unemployment figure. They simply change the status of those not working from unemployed to “on paid leave”. Another way is to assign unemployed persons to a class in finger painting or basket weaving and classify them as students. When all else fails they can simply conscript them into doing menial task, or what Barack Obama calls community service.
One last thing. You may be saying to yourself, “Hey, two years off with pay after one year’s work doesn’t sound too bad to me.” Remember the $26,800 median household income mentioned above? Sweden has the highest tax rate in the world, consuming 55% of the gross national product. Add to that up to 22.5% Value Added Tax and the real buying power of that $26,800 goes down real fast. You are not going to have a very enjoyable vacation with the amount left.
The truth is, there are no statistically reliable methods of measuring the relative “quality of life” values between socialism and free market capitalism. What price can you put on liberty? How do you measure success in the “pursuit of happiness”? Is it better to have the bare necessities of life guaranteed by the government with little effort and no risk on our part, or to have the liberty and freedom to pursue our own road to happiness with all the risks and rewards that entails? That is the choice we must make on November 4. Consider carefully before casting your vote for Obama.