Monday, March 12, 2012

Mandate This Too!

The Wall Street Journal offers a brilliant, satirical letter to the Obama administration on other healthcare essentials that the government ought to mandate coverage for. Here's a sampling of the letter:
Dear President Obama,
Can you believe the nerve of employers? Many of them still seem to think that they should be allowed to determine the benefits they offer. I guess they haven't read your 2,000-page health law. It's the government's job now. 
That's a good thing, too. Employers for too long have been able to restrict our access to essential health services like contraception by making us pay some of the bill. Really, it's amazing that we aren't all dead. Now, thanks to you, we'll enjoy free and universal access to preventative care just like workers do in Cuba. Even so, there are still many essential benefits that the government must mandate to make the U.S. the freest country in the world. 
• Fitness club memberships. Most doctors agree that exercising is one of the best ways to prevent disease. However, gym memberships can run between $240 and $1,800 per year. Such high prices force us to choose between exercising and buying groceries. While we could walk or jog outside, many of us prefer not to. Therefore, employers should be required to pay for workers' gym memberships. Doing so might even reduce employers' health costs, which is why many companies already subsidize memberships. Those that don't are limiting our freedom to exercise. 
If only people would understand how un-hyperbolic and similarly defended these proposals really are to the underpinning logic of the current contraception issue. For the remainder of the letter, see the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Representing All Americans

A unfortunate tenet on the left and on some segments of the right, is to accept that the government can justly represent just a small slice of the electorate; one's supporters, or base, interest groups, and political allies. But the reality is that for there to be any true level of justice in our political system, our leaders must truly represent all Americans. They must design policies and laws with this fundamental principle at the forefront of their minds; because, while as a political system we believe in majority rule, we also have a strong commitment to minority rights. No in-group or out-group should be offered special privileges or unfair treatment. Every American should be treated equally under the law.

It seems like a relatively simple principle when stated in a succinct manner, yet unfortunately it is frequently and readily ignored by America's politicians. It is a staple of the Obama administration's political ideology. For those on the left it is more than simply appealing to their base or providing pork to associated special interests, but a deeply enmeshed belief that the government has a responsibility to treat individuals differently in certain circumstances. Government, from this perspective, serves to ensure specific outcomes, or at least push the outcome in the desired direction. Explicitly, it accepts the notion that a just government should focus on the end result, aiming to create some arbitrary notion of equality—an impossible and unjust task.

When Obama lauds his success, as he recently did at a United Auto Workers' conference, of "saving" the auto industry, this ideology is displayed in its most unflattering light. If one was the chairman (or czar) of the auto industry, he would surely applaud the preservation of his interests. An individual, in the role of autoworker or auto company owner, may be ecstatic at receiving special dispensation, tacitly ignoring both those that paid for their rescue and those who were not rescued. But receiving such perks of money, influence, or connection, however historically common it may be, does not make it the proper way our system should be run.

However the argument here is not about the economic efficacy of such policies—there are plenty of economic rejoinders that would challenge those that tout such bailouts as fiscally sane, which can be addressed elsewhere.[1] What is at question is the ideology that the government has the right to treat one group differently than another. These type of policies support the incorrect belief that the government can (justly) protect or injure certain segments of society using arbitrary criteria (and yes, regardless of how logical such criteria may be to one or another, they are arbitrary when they discriminate between different individuals). 

The problem, to be fair, is not singularly one of the left, but also unfortunately present on the right. When Rick Santorum stands on the podium arguing for special treatment for manufacturers through tax incentives, he concedes reliance on the same backward philosophy. When congressmen from agricultural red states fight for special subsidies to farmers, they too erode the just role of government. When oilmen or bankers (or union-members) are given carve-outs, the same philosophy is at work.

This is an issue that goes beyond the charges, often correctly made, of "picking winners and losers," which is certainly problematic. The problem is the vision of government that does not consider all Americans as equal before the law. That is an ideology that, for whatever electoral or political reasons, believes that a politician can treat different Americans in different ways. 

While the political roots of this problem are understandable, the long-term consequences are potentially disastrous. Our system has moved a long way from its foundations, where the government was supposed to serve as an impartial arbitrator, as an entity that facilitated the common space but did not try to fill that space, to a near feudal model of patronage and special privileges. The system, historically speaking, may never have worked as philosophically as it strove to—there are certainly too many examples of its failure—but historically (or maybe its simply an effect of rose-tinted lenses) the philosophy seems to have greater popular currency. Today, it appears to be rarely thought of or discussed. 

American politicians need to strive to represent all Americans and the electorate should hold them to that standard. If the people eschew demands for special treatment, the politicians will have to change their electoral strategy. If privilege to the few at the expense of the many becomes anathema in the American political system (right now it is only anathema if the "few" are not you), it will help rebirth the idea that the government needs to represent all Americans, providing a system that is nimble, light, and does not impede the individual. The alternative is a bloated, heavy, and cumbersome system (daresay European) that struggles under the weight of entitlements and carve-outs. The latter is a system that not only veers away from the correct formulation of a just government but will crush the unique spirit that has made America great.

[1]Did an investment in the auto industry reap the best return for the government's investment when compared to other options? Could that money have been used to create or save even more jobs in other sectors or been better used by the taxpayers? Is having a large auto industry really in the best long-term interest of our economy? Would it have been smarter to facilitate structural changes in the economy rather than prop up a failing industry? Certainly, demonstrating that the auto industry is alive today and that jobs have been "saved" in isolation, as proponents are wont to do, does little to answer if the bailout was a smart financial decision.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rush Limbaugh Proves Why the Government Should Leave Us Alone

Rush Limbaugh has provided us with yet another reason why government should stay out of making decisions for individuals. In a recent flap over contraception, Limbaugh referred to Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a "slut" because of her desire to speak to a congressional committee on the merits of contraception (she was not allowed to). Limbaugh crossed a line—thankfully, after demurring, he apologized.

But the problem is not so much what he said—although shameful is the only way to describe it—but the firestorm and divisiveness that resulted. Limbaugh gave Fluke a national platform. Obama, in his usual arrogant way, thought that somehow his presence in the fiasco was warranted and jumped into the middle of a public fight between two private citizens. (The story of the "beer summit" between Henry Louis Gates and the Boston police officer, James Crowley, comes to mind, but Obama's swagger is another topic.) GOP presidential candidates had to distance themselves from his remarks. Organizations and legislatures changed their policies. The right marshaled or had to play defense. Suddenly, society is divided, screaming at each other over personal decisions.

And what is the cause of all this? Well the government of course. Its desire to meddle in the private decisions of individuals creates huge incentives for individuals to battle each other over how these top-down regulations are determined. It is divisive. While there are many problems with government meddling in the private sector, the one most evident in this fiasco is that government control prompts individuals and interest groups to struggle over the content of government decisions. By creating and controlling a monopoly power over a decision that will affect everyone—in this case, every American will have to pay or not pay for contraception—the government establishes an immediate battleground for unlike-minded individuals to struggle in favor of their perspective.

Suddenly, private decisions become very public ones, where advocates are either talking about their propensity to need birth control or how heinous and cruel contraception is. But the truth is, that in the public sector, this debate should not matter. One need not care or be bothered by his neighbor's decision to use or abstain from contraception.

One need not agree with the Catholic Church's stance on birth control to be in accord with the argument that the government should not interfere in individual's decisions on whether to pay for it or not. Americans should be as opposed to the government forcing individuals or private institutions into paying for contraception, as they should be opposed to the government prohibiting the sale of such devices. The point is: individuals should  have the right to make these decisions on their own, without having to justify their reasons, logic, or beliefs.

By interfering in these private decisions, the government only creates new sources of tension in society. It tries to force a disparate and diverse nation to hold one set of values or one set of beliefs. That is not only not achievable but pulls at the very fabric of social cohesion. We need not agree with our neighbors, but we also need not try to force them to conform to our beliefs. The less the government tries to push Americans into a one-size-fits-all mold, the fewer issues we will have to fight each other for control over. Congressmen should not be hearing testimony about a law student's beliefs on contraception. Pundits should not be calling people uncouth names. Presidents should not be meddling in private scuffles. And the government should not be deciding what is "right" or "wrong" for the individual.