The Skilled Veterans Corps in Japan is a group of retirees, 60 and older, who have volunteered to take the place of young workers at the site of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Masaaki Takahashi, a member of the group, is humble about his sacrifice, understanding that the young have more to lose than the old from radiation exposure. “We’re doing nothing special,” he says. “I simply think I have to do something and I can’t allow just young people to do this.”
Takahashi’s character harkens back to the twelfth century—a time when the samurai dominated feudal Japan with a sense of honor as keen as their blades were sharp. Honor-bound to protect the defenseless, a samurai would never dither in drawing his Shinogi-Zukuri katana in defense of a child, even against an army of marauders that meant certain death. To a samurai, the way in which one died was equal in importance to the way in which one lived. He would never sacrifice the lives of his sons and daughters to save his own. To see the Skilled Veterans Corps keeping this tradition of honor alive is refreshing, in our modern world where honor has become so rare.
We would all do well to realize such honor, in the small things and in the big things: the ding on the car door without a note, subway seats filled with able-bodied men whist a pregnant woman is stuck standing, a neighbor leaving their dog’s business on another’s yard. Nowhere, though, are we more lacking in honor than in our healthcare system. With Medicare’s 75-year unfunded liability reaching a staggering $30.8 trillion dollars, we are doing the opposite of what is honorable: we are sacrificing our sons and daughters for the misguided hope of receiving more care for ourselves today. Government’s handiwork has killed consumer choice and the pricing mechanism, resulting in skyrocketing prices and flat-lining quality. ObamaCare is sure to make matters even worse, with its 2000 pages of legislation and just as many exemptions being bandied about as political favors these days. The sad thing is, it needn’t be this way. We can all have access to plenty of high-quality healthcare and cutting-edge technology, but to achieve this we must start acting with honor and we must not flinch from the difficult questions.
What is the value of a human life? Who lives? Who dies? Where? How? Which treatments? Which innovations? At what prices? These are just a few examples of the hard questions that must be answered. They cannot be escaped. Someone must answer them: either you and me, or the men and women on Capitol Hill, the likes of Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi. I opt for you and me. For too many years we have been content to abdicate our responsibility to government. It just didn’t seem right for us, through free markets, to determine matters of life and death, but what we got for giving control to government was higher costs, lower quality, more death and less life.
Consider the power of our free markets in consumer goods (free relatively speaking that is), and then try to justify not using this power in the ever more important realm of healthcare. Cellphones, televisions and cars are just a few examples. We have over 300 million mobile phones currently in use. That’s about one phone per person. We have about 250 million televisions in the United States. That’s more than two per household. We have 250 million registered vehicles in the United States. That’s more than two per household.
Not only do we all have mobile phones, televisions and cars, the ones we have today are better than yesterday’s. Our fifty-inch plasma screens make the twelve-inch cathode-ray tubes of ten years ago look silly. Our iPhones make us reconsider the use of the word “mobile” in describing the clunkers of the past. And our GPS-enabled cars let us forget about the all too familiar paper maps and fights with our passengers. Now we have our pick of copilots—and their accents—and some cars even drive themselves, such as the ones used by Google to build Google Maps.
The free markets have delivered high-quality goods at low prices, and innovation races at such breakneck-speeds that we even have commercials making fun of it: a man purchases the next generation technology only to see an advertisement for the next next generation tech before even getting from the store to his vehicle.
There’s no reason for healthcare to be any different. Instead, we have a perverse system where a single retiree can demand hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical treatment to prolong his old age by another few months, all funded by our children. A samurai would have performed seppuku before living at the expense of involuntary victims. They knew how to die with dignity. The government has walked us down this trail of dishonor, and we have followed, hand-in-hand. Sadly, by hoping so hard to make healthcare a right, we have succeeded only in making it less of one.
As the samurai say, “Go into battle expecting to die, and you will surely live. Go into battle hoping to live, and surely you shall not.” It is time we captured some of this honor. It is time we took responsibility for our own healthcare choices and confronted the hard decisions boldly. By doing so, we will live longer, we will live better.