Shortage? Yes. Government Solution Required? No.
Today’s St. Joseph News-Press has an editorial about a recent Missouri Dept. of Agriculture program to encourage veterinarians to focus their practice on farm animals and not just lovable puppies and kittens in the suburbs. The basis of the editorial is interesting. I did not know about the shortage of vets in farming areas and the obvious problems that this can cause. Just the other day, my three-year old said he wanted to be a veterinarian when he grows up, so perhaps this will be an issue in my family one day. (I think pretty much every child says that at some point, though.)
To help combat this problem/issue, the editorial suggests, we (of course) need a government solution. This is where I start to disagree:
Recognizing the value of animal health professionals, USDA Rural Development has contributed $500,000 to a partnership with the Missouri Department of Agriculture to create a business plan and pilot program for an educational institution to train veterinarians. The program will focus on skills specific to treating food animals.
Like many things, this problem does not need a government solution. In fact, strict licensing of veterinarians may be one of the reasons we have a shortage in the first place. Furthermore, the veterinarians (via their licensing board) are actively involved in maintaining that general supply shortgage, as evidenced by the ongoing lawsuits against horse-teeth floaters in Missouri. As Dave Roland wrote:
Missouri’s Veterinary Medical Board has sued to prevent horse owners from hiring anyone but licensed veterinarians from working on their animals’ teeth. Equine dentistry is a centuries-old profession that veterinarians traditionally avoided, and equine dentists have their own educational programs that offer far more training and experience with horses’ teeth than is offered in veterinary schools. Nevertheless, the law states that equine dentists must be punished with a $1,000 fine and a year in prison for every horse they treat.
Basic economics tells us that the solution to a shortage is: 1) higher prices or salaries; and, 2) reduced barriers to entry. If we make it easier to be a veterinarian (or vet tech, or horse teeth floater) and allow for the market demand to increase prices or salaries for vets who work on farm animals, this shortage will solve itself.
(Note: Don’t take this as a call to completely eliminate all licensing for veterinarians. There are many worse examples of unnecessarily licensed professions than vets. But there are changes that can be made — expanding the role of vet techs, for example — that would reduce the role of government and allow the market to solve this problem.)