P.J. O’Rourke once quipped, “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” The truth behind O’Rourke’s humor is the opportunity cost of “political free.”
Even relatively bright people who have never studied economics realize that behind the government’s redistribution of wealth are huge opportunity costs both for citizens who actually pay for the government’s giveaways and for the people who receive them.
Resources are scarce and something can only be free if there is no opportunity to have or do anything else (Lee, 1999). When a poor person decides to have children and take welfare, this person narrows or even eliminates his/her opportunity to do something more productive like working, improving him/herself, getting away from the despair and dependence that comes with the government running his/her life.
One of this article’s authors had the opportunity to sit in a local Social Security office to correct a wrong birth date in the Social Security records. This necessitated waiting in a room full of entitlement recipients who were there for their monthly government check. It was fascinating and sad to see how miserable these people were as they waited to get a check for living expenses from the government. They resented being there, having to wait for and deal with the indifference of Social Security employees. Once the check was cashed, the relief and joy would last only until the money was gone. We doubt the government, and certainly not the welfare recipients, factored this wasted time and personal humiliation as the opportunity costs of being financially rescued by the federal government.
Government riding to the rescue of people unable/unwilling to take care of themselves is fraught with paradox.