April 24, 2020 - 7:00am

Like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by the Amish — a religious and linguistic minority whose way of life has diverged drastically from mainstream modernity. Previously on UnHerd, I’ve written about their thriving demographics and their success in prioritising the continuity of community over the adoption of new technology.

What makes the Amish especially interesting is that most of them live in America — arguably the the most individualistic and neophiliac society on Earth.

On his Slate Star Codex blog, Scott Alexander has an absolute must-read about another glaring contrast between the Amish and their fellow Americans: healthcare.

The Amish are generally healthier than “the English” (which is what they call non-Amish Americans):

The Amish outperform the English on every measured health outcome. 65% of Amish rate their health as excellent or very good, compared to 58 % of English. Diabetes rates are 2% vs. 8%, heart attack rates are 1% vs. 6%, high blood pressure is 11% vs. 31%. Amish people go to the hospital about a quarter as often as English people, and this difference is consistent across various categories of illness (the big exception is pregnancy-related issues – most Amish women have five to ten children).
- Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex

Alexander notes that this comes down to a healthier, happier lifestyle — more exercise, better food, fewer vices, less loneliness.

But that’s not the only reason why healthcare costs in Amish communities are dramatically lower than in the US as a whole. It’s not that they reject modern medicine — they do use it when they need it. But in all sorts of different ways they take care not to over-burden the healthcare systems they rely upon. For instance, they prefer folk medicine for minor ailments, they pool risks through church-based insurance schemes and they make a point of not suing their healthcare providers.

There’s a lot more to it than just that, of course — and I’d urge you to read the whole article. The key point, however, is that many of the factors that drive America’s notoriously inflated healthcare costs are notably absent from the Amish way of doing things.

Are there any lessons that could be applied to UK health policy?

Obviously our socialised approach to healthcare provision avoids many of the pitfalls of the American system. The point of the NHS isn’t just that it’s free at the point of need, but that it’s big enough to constrain the price-gouging market power that healthcare providers might otherwise be able to exert.

And yet the UK is hardly immune to escalating costs. We too need some of that Amish determination not over-burden the system. Of course, that’s something we’ve become acutely conscious of in the current context of the pandemic. Indeed, we’ve seen a nationwide flowering of community spirit — centred on the principle of protecting the NHS.

The big question is whether we can take this forward beyond the crisis. Of course, it’s unlikely that we’ll build communities as strong and cohesive as those of the Amish. We’d need a full-on religious revival for that. Nevertheless, we must find ways of strengthening whatever fellow-feeling that we do possess.

Individually and collectively we must become co-producers of the public goods we expect from our most cherished institutions.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.