Choice And Competition

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Rep. Barry Loudermilk Congressman, Georgia's 11th District
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On September 6, 1976, Lieutenant Victor Belenko, a Soviet Air Force pilot, flew his MiG-25 to an airport in Japan where he surrendered the top-secret aircraft to the Japanese and immediately requested political asylum in the United States.

With KGB agents eager to get their hands on the defector, Victor was brought to the United States and placed in the protective custody of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he was tucked away in an apartment in rural Virginia.

One afternoon, his CIA handlers drove Victor to a local store to buy some clothes. On the way, they passed a grocery store, and Victor insisted they stop so he could see an American market. Since the markets in the Soviet Union depleted their daily allotment of groceries by early morning, Victor expected the shelves would be barren this late in the day, but he wanted to see if what he was taught about America was true.

When Victor walked into the store, he was amazed by the abundance of food. In his perspective, there were mountains of fresh fruits and vegetables, bins full of meats and cheeses and aisle after aisle of pasta, cereal, and canned goods. Not only were there massive quantities of food, he was also astonished at the number of choices available. Victor was especially surprised by the cleanliness of the store. In the Soviet Union, the markets reeked of spoiled meat and vegetables on unclean shelves where remnants of food were left to rot and decay.

The Soviet government taught that capitalism was a “dark force,” where the powerful and wealthy lived lavishly, but average Americans lived in deplorable conditions in a state of near starvation. However, this was far from what Victor observed. Not even the powerful and wealthy in the Soviet Union had access to the abundance and selection he saw in this average American market. Not really believing that all Americans could have access to such quality, abundance and selection, Victor was convinced the store was simply a farce – a setup by the CIA to trick foreigners into thinking this was the way Americans live. “I congratulate you,” Victor told his CIA handlers, “That was a spectacular show you put on for me.” But, as Victor would learn, this was not a show, but truly a normal grocery store in rural America. Victor had yet to understand the basic premise of freedom and American culture; that, when left free of government control, the free market creates competition and, with competition, comes choices — and Americans like choices.

In the Soviet Union, long lines formed very early in the morning at the markets, because consumers competed with each other over the limited quantity of products produced by the government; but, in America’s free market, the producers compete with each other to sell to the consumer. That’s why our grocery stores carry not only one raisin bran cereal, but several types of raisin bran cereals. Although each has the same basic ingredients, each brand and style varies in some minute way because the producers are competing with one another to attract the shopper.

After Victor received asylum and began to explore more of America on his own, he began to understand the value of capitalism and the free market and realized that he had been lied to throughout his life. It was government control that was the true “dark force,” not freedom. Freedom and competition ensure quantity, quality, and value – if it isn’t good enough, large enough, or cheap enough, Americans won’t buy it.

Freedom is also the reason, as Victor eventually learned, that even the least expensive apartments in America were far nicer and cleaner than those assigned by the government in the Soviet Union. Because Americans have the freedom to choose where they live, landlords compete for tenants. If the apartment isn’t clean enough, big enough, or the right price, the tenant will go somewhere else.

When Victor visited his first American doctor, he also saw how freedom and choice worked in America’s health care system. Victor was astonished that Americans could choose their doctor; therefore, physicians had to compete to keep patients. This is why doctors’ offices and hospitals were immaculately clean, the physicians and staff were friendly, and they used the latest in medical technology, none of which were the case in the Soviet Union. When Victor inquired about the poor and elderly, he was amazed to learn that, through various government and charitable programs, everyone in America had access to health care, regardless of their ability to pay – and that was in 1976. Sometimes it helps to see ourselves through the eyes of someone outside our own culture to realize what freedom really means to our way of life. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, we have moved away from those basic tenets of freedom and choice, especially when it comes to our health care. However, we are on the verge of correcting one of the greatest wrongs done to the American people by their government – the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As many predicted when it was passed seven years ago, the ACA has had the opposite effect from what Americans were told.

Instead of having more health insurance options, there are drastically fewer and, instead of prices coming down, they skyrocketed and continue to rise. Instead of being able to keep your doctor and your health care plan, many have been forced into what the government deemed appropriate for them. The reason the ACA is failing is quite simple. Health insurance providers are not being given the freedom to create plans that people actually want, need and can afford; the government has determined what insurance plans were acceptable, and forced everyone to buy government approved products. In short, insurance companies cannot compete to earn the business of customers based on quality, availability, and value, because the ACA set up a system where consumers are competing to get the few choices mandated by the government.

While today’s health care and insurance market is much more complex than choosing which cereal to buy, it doesn’t have to be. By restoring the free market, health insurers will have the freedom to create insurance products that meet the needs of Americans. Once this freedom to innovate is restored, companies will create new insurance plans and, once again, compete for our business. This competition is what will create quality, choices, and affordability. Although it will take a while to unravel the miles of bureaucratic red-tape constraining the health insurance market, the American Healthcare Act (AHCA) is definitely a step in the right direction.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) represents Georgia’s 11th Congressional District, which includes all of Bartow and Cherokee counties and portions of Cobb and Fulton counties. Rep. Loudermilk serves as a member of the Financial Services Committee, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and the Committee on House Administration. He may be reached at (202) 225-2931 or by email at loudermilkcomms@mail.house.gov. This op-ed is based on story excerpts from “MiG Pilot” by John Barron.