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OUR OPINION: Equality v. efficiency: The central trade-off

A comment by a leading GOP candidate for governor of Minnesota points out what is by far the Republican Party's greatest weakness. But don't pop the champagne corks, Democrats, because your party's weakness is highlighted, too. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-...

A comment by a leading GOP candidate for governor of Minnesota points out what is by far the Republican Party's greatest weakness.

But don't pop the champagne corks, Democrats, because your party's weakness is highlighted, too.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, told the Star Tribune newspaper of Minneapolis that people without health insurance should rely on charity care.

"Let's incent our physicians to make money," Emmer told Strib columnist Lori Sturdevant.

"I want them to treat as many people as they can. Then let's give them an incentive to provide charity care through tax breaks."

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This astounding proposal would have one 100 percent predictable effect: It would make the gap between the haves and have-nots worse. If charity can't be relied on to provide food or shelter, it certainly won't provide $50,000 heart surgeries or lifelong dialysis treatments.

And the key is this: That's neither a left-wing nor even a liberal observation. It's simply a law of economics, one that acknowledges the iron trade-off between equality and efficiency in the ways of humanity.

As measures to boost efficiency go up (by eliminating "wasteful" and incentive-sapping welfare programs, for example), equality goes down. Winners win bigger than before, but losers lose bigger, too.

In other words, in the absence of a safety net, some large number of people fall. The result is a society of wild extremes, with great wealth on one end and extreme poverty (up to and including malnutrition or even starvation) on the other.

Most Americans don't want to live in that country. They count themselves lucky that they don't live in such a country today. They'll never subscribe to a libertarian approach that threatens to bring about such a Darwinian outcome.

And the Republican Party's greatest weakness is its refusal to frankly acknowledge that fact.

But again, Democrats should ponder their own shortcomings before celebrating the GOP's. Because the trade-off, of course, also works the other way: As efforts to bring about equality go up, efficiency -- capitalist, free-market and wealth-producing efficiency -- goes down.

It's not a possibility. It's an inevitability. It's based on one of the fundamental qualities of human nature, which is that people would rather not work for something that they can get for free.

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Otherwise, why not just tax everyone's income at 100 percent and parcel the total revenue out? Because so few people would work under such a scheme. That's why.

The Democrats' greatest weakness is their refusal to frankly acknowledge that fact.

The trade-off between equality and efficiency is inescapable. Both parties should own up to it, and accept that ever since the New Deal, Americans politics always will strike a balance between the two.

We'll sacrifice some efficiency in return for greater equality and vice versa, in other words.

Sorry, Rep. Emmer, but a near-certain outcome is that Minnesota never will rely exclusively on charity to deliver health care again.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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