Changing people's incentives doesn't make them freer
February 7, 2014
There is a point in almost every debate at which the losing party recognizes its predicament and concludes that its only remaining play is to try to corrupt the language. In Texas, pro-choice hero Wendy Davis has begun, risibly, to describe herself as “pro-life”; in his second inaugural, President Obama cloaked the most ambitious statist agenda in a half-century in the patois of limited government and rebellion; and, in my own country of birth, authorities that lock people up for speaking do so in the ostensible name of “respect.” If you can’t beat ’em, confuse ’em.
Yesterday morning, Obamacare’s beleaguered partisans got in on the act, too. Responding to a CBO report that suggested the law would encourage more than 2 million people either to seek less work or to leave the labor market completely, progressives picked up their tricornered hats and their muskets, and started to shout incoherently about “freedom.” In a lovely illustration of the truism that progressives really haven’t the slightest clue what it is that conservatives believe, the Huffington Post’s Senior Congressional Reporter, Michael McAuliff, spoke for the cabal, suggesting ludicrously that,
There’s an irony in the GOP complaining that ACA lets people quit jobs. I mean, what’s wrong with freedom?
To answer a remarkably misguided rhetorical question, there is nothing at all “wrong with freedom.” As Patrick Henry rightly argued, above all other things “liberty ought to be the direct end” of government, for, after that, everything else is mere indulgence. But there is an awful lot “wrong” with using the word “freedom” where it does not apply. After all, it is one thing for a person to choose not to work and to accept the natural consequences of that decision, but quite another indeed for a person to choose not to work because others are being forced to subsidize his well-being. One can reasonably attest that redistributing wealth to underwrite preferred social outcomes is “necessary” or “virtuous” or “kind” or “practical” — or even, more cynically, that it is the inexorable end product of a democratic system in which one man can vote himself the contents of another’s wallet. But one cannot claim that it makes either man “free” — at least not without twisting the word and the concept that it represents beyond all meaningful recognition.
Does the Obama administration really plan to make the case that negative liberty is but a mirage and that, the state of nature’s “forcing” one to work being akin to actual compulsion, the state must step in everywhere to liberate the citizenry from reality’s harsh claims? One suspects not.
At the very same time as the White House and its friends were taking credit for having emancipated the American people from the indignities of having to keep down a career, others seemed to be insisting that the labor market and the government are wholly discrete entities. This isn’t about Obamacare “killing” jobs, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote, “it’s about workers — and the choices they make.” “Look at it this way,” he explained. “If someone says they decided to leave their job for personal reasons, most people would not say they ‘lost’ their jobs. They simply decided not to work.” To an extent, this distinction is a fair one, although there is a great deal of truth in The Economist’s observation that “a job is an economic transaction between a seller and a buyer of labour, and can be ‘destroyed’ if either seller or buyer walks away.”
Either way, it fails to address the material question, which is, “Why, in this case, will those people ‘decide not to work’?” The answer, of course, is that the intrusive federal action that one party supports and the other opposes has changed the calculation for them. 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.
Brazen double standards and the corruption of the English language to one side, the important question now is whether the change will be a good one. Unsurprisingly, I am of the view that it will not. On the contrary: Work is a virtue that should be reflexively encouraged. It is the means by which standards of living are grown, human potential is reached, individual lives are focused, positive and negative instincts are channeled, resources are utilized most efficiently, and, above all, by which dignity remains intact. It is the best antidote to personal and national ossification and sclerosis, and the primary means by which our present material comfort was achieved. It is the driving force behind improvement, both real and imagined, in the nation’s mainstream culture. Whatever the ideal role of government in contriving work or wages for those who are without them, we should all presumably be able to agree that if we are going to have an intrusive state, it should be doing precisely the opposite of encouraging people to limit their involvement in work.. (Prudence dictates that I couch this asseveration with a disclaimer: No, I do not consider it the role of government to force people to work against their will, nor to support them if they choose not to. But that is a decidedly different question from whether it should do more to enable them not to work.)
Yesterday, my colleague Patrick Brennan took a look at just how much Obamacare does to attenuate Americans’ need to work. His conclusion: “a lot.” Correctly, he writes that “for decades, Americans have tended to work harder and for longer than people do in other countries, which has made the U.S. richer and more competitive — and as our workforce ages and our entitlements get more expensive, encouraging economic growth and labor-force participation is going to become more important, not less.”
This is the economic case, and it is a strong one. But the political and civil cases are equally compelling. Traditionally, at least, the American safety net has been designed to catch those who, for whatever reason, have fallen out of civil society toward the rocks below, but to leave everybody else alone. These days, however, Americans are finding themselves involved with the state as a condition of being alive. The middle-class 36-year-old small-business owner who lives next door almost certainly had nothing much to do with Washington until Obamacare came along. Now? He’s buying his health insurance from a federal website and working out how many hours he can cut back to take advantage of the subsidies. The last Democratic president took concrete steps to mitigate the corrupting consequences of welfare. This one has fought tooth and nail to bring the intractable problems inherent to government aid to everybody in the country, and to transmute the safety net into a smothering, ambient cocoon. How swiftly things change.
Hot Air’s Allahpundit is concerned that the fix is in, and that we will soon witness America follow what Niall Ferguson claimed has been the “decline and fall of the Protestant work ethic in Europe.” “If we’ve reached the stage of welfare-state decadence where it’s a selling point for a new entitlement that it discourages able-bodied people from working,” he wrote, then “there’s no reason to keep going. We’ve lost, decisively.”
You will find no arguments here. Economically, politically, and spiritually, such an outcome would be disastrous. Nevertheless, the Washington Post’s left-leaning Dana Milbank refreshingly believes that quite the opposite is likely to happen. The CBO’s report, Milbank contends, “is grim news for the White House and for Democrats on the ballot in November”:
This independent arbiter, long embraced by the White House, has validated a core complaint of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) critics: that it will discourage work and become an ungainly entitlement.
Progressives who are scratching their heads and asking themselves why conservatives who are “pro-business” and who have long wished to decouple health insurance and employment aren’t thrilled at recent developments might do well to heed their own advice. “George W. Bush,” Barry Switzer one quipped, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” The implication of the joke: How you get somewhere matters. They are right, and so, herewith let it be resolved: Being forced to buy products is not the same thing as choosing to; leaving work because Uncle Sam is helping you out on the side is not the same thing as electing to leave without assistance; and winning the fruits of success without the hard work that has traditionally served as a prerequisite is no victory at all. We deserve government that recognizes these truths. Will we get it? Time will tell.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.