Thomas Sowell

One of the many reasons why economists are unpopular is that they keep reminding people that things have costs, that there is no free lunch. People already know that -- but they like to forget it when there is something they have their hearts set on.

Economists don't have to say anything when people are buying things at a shopping mall or at an automobile dealership. The price tags convey the situation in unmistakable terms. It is when people are voting for nice-sounding things that politicians have dreamed up that economists are likely to point out that the costs which the politicians have ignored are going to have to be paid, one way or another -- and that you have to weigh those costs against whatever benefits you expect.

Who wants to put on green eye shades and start adding up the numbers when someone grandly proclaims, "access to health care for all" or "clean air" or "saving the environment"? Economists are strictly party-poopers at times like these. They are often gate-crashers too, since usually nobody asked them how much these things would cost or even thought about these issues in such terms.

Some of the more persistent or insensitive economists may even raise questions about the goals themselves. How much health care at the taxpayers' expense? In Britain, a 12-year-old girl was given breast implants. That much health care?

Meanwhile, Britain's skyrocketing medical costs of taking care of things that people would never have spent their own money to take care of forced cutbacks and delays in more urgently needed medical treatments. One woman's cancer operation was postponed so many times by the British health service that, by the time the system could take her, the disease was now too far gone for medical help -- and she died.

Economists could have told anyone in advance that making things "free" causes excessive use by some, leaving less for others with more urgent needs that have to remain unsatisfied. Rent control, for example, had led to more room being occupied by some, who would not have paid the market price for as large an apartment as they live in, while others cannot find any housing that they can afford in the city, and have to live far away and commute to work.

Clean air? There is no such thing and never has been. There is only air with varying degrees of impurities, varying amounts of which can be removed at varying costs.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate