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And the reason for this is that welfare-state programs, once firmly entrenched, can never be repealed, no matter how unpopular or how expensive or how poorly they work.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