The Moral Paralysis of Obamacare

By Mar 29, 2010, 1:07 PM Author's Blog  

The perceptive Alexis de Tocqueville argued that Americans are not as keen on “free speech” as it may first seem. Before an idea or proposal is passed into law they will argue, use invectives, claim that proponents or opponents are bad people, and so forth. But after a law has been passed and the dust settles much becomes unquestionable.

This has happened with many controversial ideas including Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security. There are many explanations for this. First, public choice economists suggest that when a redistributive legislation becomes law the various interest groups that benefit become even better organized to maintain it. Second, bills can be passed – in the limit – by simple majorities and presidential signature. Laws can be repealed only with supermajorities in both houses of Congress if the president vetoes. Third, losers often adjust to make a good thing out of bad. Doctors and hospitals, for example soon learned how to use Medicare to further the demand for their services.

Some self-styled progressives will argue that this move from controversy to acceptance is because people see that the programs “work.”

There is a lot to deconstruct with glib statements such as this one. For example, perceiving something to work is different from it actually working. And, of course, what does “work” mean? Relative to which alternatives? Surely these programs provide benefits to some, even many, otherwise they would probably vanish. This is Frederic Bastiat’s “the seen.”

Yet as time goes on people become increasingly incapable of imagining any alternatives. This is the way things have always been done, they will think. (I once suggested to my students that if food had for a long time been provided by the government, people might have a hard time imagining how such a vital commodity could be provided by private individuals – after all wouldn’t much of it be poisonous?)

The government provides and has always provided the necessities of life, future generations may say.

There is also another problem. This is the “is-ought” heuristic (aka “fallacy”). People don’t like to keep revisiting issues because it is costly. Perhaps, even more, Americans want to live in a benevolent country with a benevolent government. So this deep desire leads them to think: If the law was passed by our elected representatives and by a smart president, it must be good. What is now becomes what ought to be.

There may be a small window of opportunity to do away with some aspects of Obamcare, especially as many provisions take effect only in a few years. However, if it is perceived to be too expensive, if the nation’s debt situation worsens considerably, if inflation gathers considerable steam, the “crisis” might then be enough to overcome the usual post-legislation stasis.

Yet in a “crisis” anything can happen. Perhaps the failure of Obamacare would be taken as evidence that we need to simplify the system and go to the Single Payer.

Then, hat-in-hand, Americans will become even more dependent on the state.

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