No Such Thing as “Free”
I spent the bulk of this summer participating in the University of Massachusetts Oxford Summer Seminar. Studying at Trinity College is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially if one takes advantage of the transportation system to see other places in Britain and Europe.
I took two trips to London, England, one to Portsmouth, England and Normandy, France and even one to the Dorset countryside, Meanwhile, others went to Edinburgh, England, Dublin, Ireland, Salzburg, Austria, Paris, France and other places. I do not know about my compatriots, but it will take me some time to put everything I did and learned into perspective, though perhaps this column will be good practice for that task.
Of course, the most important part of the experience was the people – the amazing and ever-present people. I could spend this entire piece whining or waxing rhapsodic about living shoulder-to-shoulder with so many great people in the dorms at Trinity. But I think that is better left for Facebook. Suffice it to say that the memories I will cherish the most revolve around the friends I made and that I fervently hope to keep for years to come. However, some of the most valuable lessons I learned during my time abroad have less to do with the people I was living with and more to do with those that I met along the way.
For example, Oxford is an ancient city, which imposes certain restrictions on what accommodations can be made for the physically challenged. Faced with a choice between preserving archaic streets and buildings and tearing them apart to make way for wheelchair ramps, elevators and other aids, the government and people of the city have chosen to keep their cobblestones and their history.
Meanwhile, in America, a town would be forced by the threat of legal action to destroy the old to make way for the new and accessible. In England there is pride in protecting the walls and pathways built by their ancestors. The people I spoke with were acutely aware of the fact that their dedication to their history came at the cost of making life a bit tougher for those with physical disabilities. But, they believe that preserving the historic character of their city is for the greater good.
I also learned that there is a general feeling in Britain that providing health insurance to everyone is worth the sacrifices made to do so. Again, the needs of the individual are placed behind those of the society in general. However, a friend I met told me of the injury he suffered in an accident, and notes that, if he had been limited to only the coverage provided by the government, his leg would likely have been amputated. He was fortunate to have private insurance through his employer, and so the leg was repaired instead, but this illustrates another tradeoff made by the British.
Instead of workers deciding whether to purchase health insurance, either on their own or in concert with their employers, as is the case in America, in England, the government provides everyone with basic health care coverage. In order to do this they must control the costs of such insurance, which means that state-of-the-art procedures that are available to those with private insurance are often not available to those with only the government’s coverage. This is not to say that many in America cannot afford such expensive procedures as well. Rather, it means that this dichotomy has also not been solved in Britain, even with supposedly universal health care coverage.
I admit that I was out of touch with goings on in the States while I was in England, and deliberately so. I wanted to focus on the environment I was in, and so, I tried to pay as little attention as I could to the health care debate raging back home. As such, I am not up to speed on the plans that are on the table, and the various arguments in favor or against them. Therefore, I am not trying to say that Britain’s universal health insurance system, or Amherst’s plans to preserve the historic nature of the town, is a good or bad thing, merely to point out the essential nature of government action in any aspect of society.
The simple fact is that government solutions always impose some price, however unintentional, it may be. Although the unintended consequences of new laws and regulatory structures may pale in comparison to the problems that they solve, that does not negate the fact that they occur. The best that we can hope is to do the most good for the most people. Yet, make no mistake. That inevitably comes at the cost of individual freedom.
Whether it comes in the form of higher taxes or more laws regarding what we can and cannot do with our own bodies, any increase of government power, even in the name of the most beneficent goal, always takes a toll on our liberty. As anyone who has lived in Oxford can tell you, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and I am quite sure that the same is true for health care coverage.
Ben Rudnick is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.