Thomas Sowell

If there was one defining moment in the debates among an already crowded field of Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination in 2004, it may well have been when Congressman Dennis Kucinich, pushing for government-provided health care, spoke with obvious disgust of the "profits" of the insurance companies and provoked a burst of spontaneous applause from like-minded members of the audience.

Insurance companies, like every other kind of institution, have to earn money in order to keep functioning. So does every individual who was not born rich. But some people react to the word "profit" with automatic responses, like Pavlov's dog.

Such prejudice against a word was far more common half a century ago than it is today. Congressman Kucinich may think of himself as a "progressive," but he is in fact a throwback to a bygone era.

Profit was defined as "overcharge" by George Bernard Shaw, one of the founders of Fabian socialism. "Never speak to me of profit," India's Prime Minister Nehru once said to his country's leading industrialist. "It is a dirty word."

Why are such conceptions of profit no longer as common as they were 50 years ago? Because of half a century of experience with economies that tried to operate without profit. Back in the 1950s, socialism was the wave of the future and countries around the world tried out one variety or another.

With profits eliminated, in theory there should have been lower prices for the consumers, who would now be able to afford a higher standard of living. In reality, countries that went the socialist route found themselves falling farther behind countries that allowed the hated profit system to continue to exist.

Naturally, political leaders with the vision of a government-controlled economy did not want to admit that they were wrong, much less have the voters realize that they were wrong. Only when decade after decade of blatant evidence from around the world became undeniable did governments begin to withdraw their suffocating controls and sell government-owned industries to private entrepreneurs.

But, just as there are still pockets of resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, so there are still holdouts like Congressman Kucinich and like-minded Democrats. Socialism has been discredited as an explicitly avowed belief but it still lives on in a thousand disguises, of which "universal health care" is just one.

Like so many pretty words used in politics, "universal health care" is seldom examined in terms of what its actual track record has been in the countries where it has been tried.

Thomas Sowell

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

Creators Syndicate