Here to stay

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Free­lance colum­nist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, re­ceived his Ph.D. in po­lit­i­cal science from the Univer­sity of Illi­nois.

The dif­fi­culty Repub­li­cans in Congress are en­coun­ter­ing in try­ing to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act (Oba­macare) tells us a great deal about the way the wel­fare state works and why it al­ways grows larger.

It was easy for Repub­li­cans to pass leg­is­la­tion re­peal­ing Oba­macare when it didn’t mat­ter; when they knew such ef­forts were merely sym­bolic ges­tures that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama would squash. They could ben­e­fit from pos­tur­ing against an un­pop­u­lar govern­ment pro­gram with­out hav­ing to ac­tu­ally in­cur the po­lit­i­cal costs of get­ting rid of it and re­plac­ing it with an in­evitably less-than-per­fect some­thing else.

The hunch is that, Paul Ryan and Mitch McCon­nell prom­ises aside, it is now too late; more pre­cisely, that Oba­macare or some­thing re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to it with a Repub­li­can stamp of ap­proval is here to stay.

Chief Jus­tice John Roberts’ 2012 rul­ing in Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Busi­ness v. Se­be­lius, in which he up­held the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the in­di­vid­ual man­date at the heart of Oba­macare by disin­gen­u­ously rein­ter­pret­ing a fine as a tax (and thus within Congress’ author­ity and out­side of the sway of the Com­merce Clause) es­sen­tially punted the pro­gram back into the po­lit­i­cal arena.

Roberts clearly wished to keep the court above the par­ti­san fray and per­haps also ex­pected, as many con­ser­va­tives did at the time, that the 2012 elec­tion would bring a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent who, in con­junc­tion with a Repub­li­can Congress, could do the dirty work of get­ting rid of it.

But it didn’t, of course, hap­pen that way; Obama was re-elected and Oba­macare was given at least four more years to stretch its un­gainly ten­ta­cles still deeper into the fab­ric of the na­tion’s health-care sys­tem, only now fur­ther le­git­i­ma­tized with an im­pri­matur of con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity (sub­se­quently re­in­forced by Roberts again, with his 2015 rul­ing in King v. Bur­well).

What the Supreme Court could have driven a stake through five years ago is thus still alive and sham­bling about, even more dys­func­tional in its work­ings and calami­tous in its con­se­quences, but now, by virtue of the pas­sage of time, in­creas­ingly im­mune to over­turn.

And the rea­son for this is that wel­fare-state pro­grams, once firmly en­trenched, can never be re­pealed, no mat­ter how un­pop­u­lar or how ex­pen­sive or how poorly they work.

At the heart of this de­press­ing cir­cum­stance is the dis­crep­ancy be­tween what could be called “eco­nomic” and “po­lit­i­cal” logic, in the sense that rudi­men­tary eco­nomics sug­gest Oba­macare and other coun­ter­pro­duc­tive ap­pendages of the wel­fare state should go for the sake of the na­tional wel­fare (par­tic­u­larly as we reach fis­cal in­sol­vency with debt sur­pass­ing GDP), but po­lit­i­cal logic pre­vents it from hap­pen­ing.

More pre­cisely, we en­counter Fred­eric Bas­tiat’s in­sights re­gard­ing the per­ils of re­dis­tri­bu­tion­ist govern­ment, in which such so­cial pro­grams quickly cre­ate a con­stituency of ben­e­fi­cia­ries who will fight tooth and claw to pre­serve their par­tic­u­lar share of the “le­gal plun­der,” thereby also cre­at­ing too great a risk for risk-averse politi­cians to tam­per with them, even if they have promised to do so and the mer­its sug­gest they should.

In short, the growth of the wel­fare state is po­lit­i­cally ir­re­versible be­cause each ad­di­tional in­cre­ment be­comes a per­ma­nent ad­di­tion—as their lib­eral spon­sors well un­der­stand, the ben­e­fits of any given pro­gram are im­me­di­ate and sub­stan­tial for the ben­e­fi­cia­ries, the costs mod­est be­cause they are widely dis­persed among the many more that pay for them. In Bas­tiat’s terms, the ben­e­fits are seen, the costs un­seen.

Un­der such cir­cum­stances, the cut­ting of wel­fare-state pro­grams be­comes well nigh im­pos­si­ble, with even cuts in the rate of growth of spend­ing eas­ily car­i­ca­tured and vil­i­fied, how­ever fis­cally nec­es­sary.

Amore con­tem­po­rary econ­o­mist, Man­cur Ol­son, noted the prob­lem of con­cen­trated ben­e­fits and dif­fused costs dis­torts much of con­tem­po­rary pub­lic pol­icy, in­clud­ing is­sues as di­verse as min­i­mum wage laws and tar­iffs/pro­tec­tion­ism. The chronic bud­get deficits and ac­cu­mu­lat­ing debt that pro­duce the de­cline of na­tions flow from the fact that ben­e­fi­cia­ries of govern­ment largess have in­cen­tives to or­ga­nize to pro­tect their in­ter­ests but the larger mass of tax­pay­ers whose in­ter­ests are be­ing ad­versely af­fected don’t.

The fis­cal in­sol­vency that re­sults is then com­pounded when dem­a­gogic, op­por­tunis­tic politi­cians re­al­ize the elec­toral ben­e­fits of buy­ing votes with other peo­ple’s money, of­ten un­der the mis­lead­ing guise of com­pas­sion.

The strong hunch, then, is that what comes out of the GOP ef­fort to “re­peal and re­place” Oba­macare will be sim­ply Oba­macare by a dif­fer­ent name, with per­haps a few mar­ket-based tweaks here and there, thus min­i­miz­ing the po­lit­i­cal risks oth­er­wise as­so­ci­ated with touch­ing “third rail” wel­fare-state pro­grams.

The pat­tern there­fore con­tin­ues—the left, with a clear agenda of max­i­miz­ing the role of govern­ment in all as­pects of our lives, ex­pands the wel­fare state at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity (the New Deal, the Great So­ci­ety, and now the ACA), while the right huffs and puffs but in the end be­comes not its de­stroyer but merely its care­taker.

And with no log­i­cal lim­it­ing prin­ci­ple or stop­ping point, the left­ward march of his­tory ad­vances, and we in­evitably reach the dream (or night­mare, de­pend­ing upon point of view) of so­cial­ism. Not through a vi­o­lent revo­lu­tion that in­stalls Marx’s “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat,” but on the in­stall­ment plan.

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