Richard Epstein's Mortal Peril: Ebenezer Scrooge Meets the American Health Care System

Posted: 9 Mar 1999


Professor Henry Greely views Richard Epstein's Mortal Peril as a provocative, but ultimately failed work. It provokes with both its sharp analysis and its pointed language. Yet it fails in its goal of demonstrating the useful application of Epstein's first principles to the problems of access to health care. Greely first argues that several of Epstein's chapters focus on the need to change the health care system to let people who cannot afford care die, without providing empirical support for his claims about the costs of the current system. He asserts that Epstein never assesses the possible benefits of the programs he attacks, including the value in their correspondence to the popular unwillingness to let people die for lack of money. He contends that Epstein's rhetoric about these deaths is harsh and likely counterproductive. Greely then contends that Epstein's examination of access to health care delivers far less than the sweeping assessment the book promises. Mortal Peril fails to recommend specific reforms or describe, even in general terms, how the health care system would operate if its principles were adopted. Greely then constructs a health care system that he argues would meet Epstein's principles. He claims that it would provide more health coverage for those who need it least, and less health coverage for those who need it most: a result both substantively and politically unacceptable. Epstein's first principles, Greely urges, do not provide solutions to the problems of access to health care and are, at best, irrelevant to them. Finally, Greely argues that the book's provocative premise, combined with its flaws, creates the danger that many will disregard future attempts to bring the tools of economic analysis to bear on health care reform. To Greely, this danger is more real than the danger that Epstein's proposals will be followed by health care policy makers.

JEL Classification: I11, I12, I18

Suggested Citation

Greely, Henry (Hank) T., Richard Epstein's Mortal Peril: Ebenezer Scrooge Meets the American Health Care System. University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 1998, No. 3, 1998, Available at SSRN:

Henry (Hank) T. Greely (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-2517 (Phone)
650-725-0253 (Fax)

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