What does “free” cost?

The word “free” should be banned for use by politicians. It cropped up again this week when former Prime Minister Helen Clark urged the Government to fully fund dental care for Kiwis.

“NZ makes hospital care free — why not a right to dental care?” she is quoted as saying.

Her comments come on the back of lots of other talk about “free” things; The Labour Party campaigned on the promise of three free years of tertiary education (eventually). On the campaign trail National promised one “free” dental course for pregnant women, and a third “free” round of IVF treatment. The Green Party wants “free” counselling for everyone under 25 and New Zealand First wants “free” eye tests for pensioners.

It sounds lovely, except for the fact that it is a blatant, downright untruth. After all, the word free literally means “without cost or payment”. Yet every single one of these policy promises comes at a cost to you and me.

We – you, me, grandma, poor ol’ Bernie, rich Mrs Kingsley – we foot the bill.

The irony, by the way, is that so many of the things being offered for free are already subsidised for those most in need.

Take dental care, for example. As the article points out, “basic” dental care for everyone up to the age of 18 is “free”. Those with community services cards, disabilities or certain conditions also get some help.

Here’s another example: Thanks to the student allowance and accommodation benefit students on struggle street get both their fees, and accommodation while studying heavily subsidised.

Still don’t believe me? In March this year there were calls for “free” contraception. But beneficiaries already get “free” birth control, and a range of contraceptive options are heavily subsidised for those with community services cards.

That means what we are doing by making such services “free” is paying for middle class and wealthy Kiwis to get root canals, condoms and law degrees.

How…unnecessary. Especially when you consider that those most in need will also have to contribute to the tax bill it takes to fund such “compassionate” initiatives.

Yes, poor ol’ Bernie will be paying for rich Mrs Kingley to get a root canal, while he wishes his teeth would cave in so he could get at least some bang for his buck.

It’s a ridiculous situation, all the more so because most Kiwis are quite alright with helping out those most in need.

After all, we believe in a fair go.

That’s why the word “free” should be banned. Whenever any politician, from any party, even starts to breath the word, we ought to instantly be asking how much of our tax it will take.

But that’s not all we should ask.

We should ask who will really benefit, and what else we can’t fund if we decide to pay for the latest “free” policy some politician has come up with.  After all, we can’t afford everything we would like.

You see, costs can’t just be measured in dollars, they must also be measured in missed opportunities and most especially of all, in terms of people.

Sometimes, it really will be worth pooling our resources to pay for something, like roads or hospitals, or it really will help the less well-off. Other times, it will be a waste of money, and ultimately it will harm the poorest among us more than it helps.

And really, the only way we can figure out who really needs help, and what we can best do about it, is to stop saying “free”.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz


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