Bernie Sanders is on a roll — by his own lights, anyway. Unwilling to stop at "Medicare for All," or his intended student debt jubilee, he has moved on to issue a plan to wipe away all medical debt, too.

Predictably, the scheme is unworkably broad and irresponsibly costly. But Sanders is on firmer ground raising the problem than he is dreaming of a fully government subsidized health system. Americans do face a grim crisis around medical costs. It's unfortunate that Sanders is first past the post with an attention-getting plan.

According to his scheme, the federal government would zero out over $80 billion of medical debts and make more of them dischargeable in bankruptcy. Surely the withholding of some types of debt from bankruptcy has undermined the spirit of the system, which has earned praise as a source of American resilience and freedom since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville.

On the other hand, while medical debts are serious, simply deleting them from the ledger would leave underlying problems undisturbed while putting health and economic systems at risk. The federal debt is already wildly too high. Piling on medical debt would terrify markets and touch off a cascade of me-too demands for even more generous and sweeping kinds of relief.

At the same time, it would paint with too broad a brush at the consumer level. Nearly 50 million Americans have medical debts in collections, but the size of the debt is less than $600 on average. Some Americans are in way over their heads, while others just need time to lock in a payment plan. Treating them all the same won't serve us or them.

Meanwhile, the Sanders plan would leave underlying causes untouched. Deductibles are too high and out of network bills are too. These are problems he'd address by socializing all health care. But they wouldn't lower costs; they'd just push them onto the government, meaning all of us taxpayers.

The cost problem can only be fruitfully addressed by encouraging more competition and entrepreneurship in health care and health technology.

We live in a society where there's no culture of savings, where leveraging credit is necessary to get ahead, and where few have a net worth that can absorb surprise expenses. Even Americans with money socked away can't always get to it without suffering big penalties and fees or massive and risky life disruptions like selling a house on the spot.

These challenges emanate from an economic system that has rewarded insiders and expanded entitlements without extending such subsidies to working and middle class Americans. Ideally nobody would enjoy massive government subsidies, or come to rely on them.

To move in that direction, we need to clear the regulatory path so more Americans on every rung of the ladder can ramp up sustainable and productive lives, building wealth and strengthening their freedom.

That's not what Sanders is all about, of course. And this plan is just one of many of his to use government to dole out billions and trillions more than the federal government actually has.


A version of this editorial first appeared in The Orange County (Calif.) Register (TNS).