Obamacare CBO Report Day Three: Negative Liberty Is a Mirage

Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review is absolutely livid that people will be free to spend more time taking care of their families because of Obamacare. His philosophical efforts to explain his dismay at this are not very good.

Myth of Ownership

He first employs the myth of ownership, writing it is not freedom "for a person to choose not to work because others are being forced to subsidize his well-being."

The problem with the normatively loaded way "subsidize" is used here is that it assumes that the amount going to Obamacare beneficiaries deeply belongs to other people. In reality, nothing inherently belongs to anyone. Who gets what is all made up and we can make it up however we want. To assume the resources in question deeply belong to others to make some argument for why their going to Obamacare beneficiaires is wrong is both incoherent and question begging.

Moreover, I doubt Cooke actually believes in the radical implications of his argument here. Levying taxes to fund the institutions that create and enforce our private property system (courts, police, agencies, and so on) also involves forcing people to "subsidize" the well-being of others, which in some cases certainly causes people to work less than the alternative. So does he oppose this? I suspect not.

Negative Liberty

Cooke then acts as if negative liberty is a real thing, asking "Does the Obama administration really plan to make the case that negative liberty is but a mirage?" I can't say what the Obama administration will do, but negative liberty is but a delusional mirage in a world of scarcity. Negative liberty requires that individuals be free from external restraint. But ownership of some scarce thing requires the external restraint of all other people from accessing that thing. All ownership is violative of negative liberty for this reason. That's not to say ownership is a bad thing, just that it violates negative liberty, as libertarian Robert Nozick famously observed.

Status Quo Baseline

Finally, and this is my absolute favorite, Cooke has a bizarre argument about how Obamacare deviates from the status quo baseline:

It really is this simple: Before Obamacare, there was a status quo. With Obamacare, the government changed that status quo. As a result of that change, people are making different decisions. One can claim that the change will help to diminish youth unemployment or allow the elderly to enjoy more leisure time or do wonders for the gardening industry. But one can’t pretend that the state doesn’t have full culpability for those different decisions being made. That is a step too far.

Obamacare is supposed to reduce labor supply through what's called the income effect. Essentially, Obamacare increases the incomes of certain people (by providing them health care) and that causes some of them to decide that they'd rather work 30 hours instead of 40, and spend the remaining 10 hours with their families.

But there are other ways the state can cause labor supply to fall through the income effect, e.g. cutting taxes. What's great about Cooke's insistence on using the status quo as the baseline is that we can now officially say that cutting taxes is "a step too far." Watch:

It really is this simple: Before the tax cut, there was a status quo. With the tax cut, the government changed that status quo. As a result of that change, people are making different decisions. One can claim that the change will help to diminish youth unemployment or allow the elderly to enjoy more leisure time or do wonders for the gardening industry. But one can’t pretend that the state doesn’t have full culpability for those different decisions being made. That is a step too far.

If we cut taxes in a way that increases people's income and thereby causes them to reduce their labor supply (through the income effect), Cooke could write this exact paragraph. In fact, all policy changes result in people making somewhat different decisions, even the ones Cooke presumably supports. So it appears, under Cooke's status quo analytical approach to state action, cutting taxes is horrible and shouldn't be done. It also appears we should never reform the status quo period, lest we go "a step too far."

To be serious for a second, the government can't help but affect the decisions people make. The government can't get out of the way. Property law causes people to make some decisions they wouldn't make in its absence. The same is true of contract law, corporate law, securities law, commerce law, and everything else. The system of production and distribution that we have is all legal interventions and distortions all the way down. The government is thus forced to make choices about how to construct our economic institutions, and those choices necessarily cause people to make some decisions and not others. Cooke is not actually mad about that in general (else he'd write a piece calling for the repeal of property law). He just doesn't like this particular design decision for reasons other than the ones he writes about.

Conclusion

If conservatives were honest, they'd stop with these shell arguments, and just admit that they are Just Deserts people who are mad because they think the rich are getting an unjustly low amount of the national income and the poor an unjustly high amount of it. But since that's not a very winning thing to say, we get really silly arguments instead.

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