Dental Socialism in Britain

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When you think about the sufferings of the precapitalistic age, it helps to have a vivid example in mind.

Think of teeth.

In ancient Egypt, dentists drilled holes through the bone to drain abscessed teeth. No anesthesia. Later, people learned that pulling teeth was the best way to deal with this and other problems. No anesthesia. Dental drills were an advance, but you had to keep the hole filled to keep the air out.

Those who had the tools did the work. For centuries in Europe, the same guy who cut your hair also extracted your teeth. In the US, it was the blacksmiths who would make the kitchen knives, saw off limbs, and drill and pull teeth.

By the mid-19th century, the biggest advance ever came along: laughing gas to take away the pain, which is unthinkably horrible in all ages and all places.

Well, if you live in Britain, you are likely to experience a blast from the past.

The system is socialized. Shortages and bad service are as universal under socialism as tooth pain was before the advent of anesthesia. But many in Britain no longer have any choice: they have to pull out their own teeth.

Only 49 percent of adults and 63 percent of children are registered with a dentist in England and Wales, according to the New York Times. You have to be registered to get service, but there is still no guarantee. You wait months, even years, if you get in at all.

To make an appointment, you have to call at 8am. The logs are full by 8:10am. This is what accounts for the burgeoning market in over-the-counter replacement fillings that you stuff in yourself. Most people just avail themselves of their tool boxes, and give the problem tooth a good yank. It heals in time.

This experiment in British socialism was concocted by a class of intellectuals who imagined that their scheme would provide equal access to all of life’s wonderful things. The result has been a tragedy. And this tragedy has, in many ways, ended in a terrible farce: people yanking out their own teeth in the land that gave us the most conspicuous example of the industrial revolution.

There is more than a lesson concerning socialism here. The experience provides a warning against all forms of “scientific social planning.” The intellectuals hatch their plans to save humanity but, in some strange way, they forget that they are not playing games in a laboratory. They are dealing with real human lives. And these lives are not large amalgamations of classes or races but individuals. We experience pain and suffering, joys and triumphs, as individuals.

Tooth pain has a way of focusing the point on what really matters. Someone may claim that he has an idea for providing universal access to dentistry, if only you give him the power to do what he wants.

But there are a number of questions you should ask. Will he or you be the one to suffer if something goes wrong? Who is going to be held to account if the plan results in deprivation rather than plenty? What is the exit strategy for abolishing the system if it doesn’t work? Where is the guarantee that this exit plan will be followed?

If someone can’t give compelling answers to these questions, you are best to take the safe route and do nothing. No one in all of history has been able to improve on the workings of society via the power of the state. No matter how well constructed the plan appears to be, it always seems to make things worse than better.

Free enterprise can’t make the reality of tooth pain disappear. It can’t alter the makeup of the universe. It can’t change human nature. It can’t abolish mortality. It can’t take away the need for parents to train their children on the difference between right and wrong. It must accept the structure of reality as a given.

Neither, however, can the state do these things. What free enterprise does is provide the best possible system for dealing with reality. It provides a rational way of dealing with the scarcity of time and resources.

If you try to improve on freedom by means of the state, you not only create a worse situation but you end up slowing the pace of progress and actually bring about retrogression in advances made through the capitalistic era.

The socialization of dentistry has plunged Britain back more than a century in tooth care. Abolish capitalism altogether and you can find yourself back in the Stone Age. Even the metal drill will seem like a welcome tool.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com and author of Speaking of Liberty.

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