We are about to embark into another chapter of what has become life in “The Not Really United States of America”. Before we head into the Super Bowl of political dissension – the Presidential Election – we get to observe the Supreme Court argue the merits of the program that has unfortunately become known as Obamacare. Most Americans know little or nothing about how the new health care legislation actually works. But ignorance should not stop us from getting sucked into the political rhetoric; arguing the sound bytes as opposed to the facts.
Yesterday I was listening to a radio debate on the subject. The commentator representing the right expressed concern that the new healthcare program was actually a bridge to allow the government to completely control your life. “This is a big step into turning us into Communist Russia or China”, argued the representative from the Libertarian think-tank The Cato Institute. “If the government can force you to buy healthcare insurance, then what would stop them from forcing you to buy Exxon Mobil stock?”
I actually had a little trouble with that interpretation. I was unaware that one of the tenants of Communism was to force the population to invest in publically-traded companies. Sounds more like Chairman Buffett as opposed to Chairman Mao. I also really doubt Obama’s end game is to get us all to invest in old-school oil companies. Maybe Whole Foods, or even Lulu Lemon, but not Exxon. And a little wishful thinking here….. For over thirty years I have been paying into Social Security. I wish the government would have instead forced me to buy Exxon Mobil stock, as my retirement portfolio would be much healthier.
The commentator representing Obamacare gave a different perspective. He pointed out that 50 million Americans do not have insurance, and all of us that do the responsible thing and buy insurance end up subsidizing them out of our pockets through huge cost increases and other taxes. He quoted statistics on how much we will all ultimately save, and the various efficiencies that the program will create.
And as I considered the two perspectives, a few things occurred to me. First, I completely understand the hesitation to allow too much government intervention into our lives, but hasn’t it really always been a function of government to occassionally force the population to do the right thing for the collective good?
The government makes me buy auto insurance, and I am pretty happy about that. I would buy it anyway, but I feel quite a bit safer on the road knowing that the guy who might hit me is most likely insured. I also believe that forcing people to buy auto insurance has made the auto insurance industry more competitive, which has forced down the price. So it is feasible to me that as a result of making everyone buy insurance, the insurance I would buy anyway costs me less, and I get the added security of knowing most people on the road are insured. A win/win.
The government makes me pay into Social Security, and though I would prefer to manage my own retirement portfolio (where I might even own evil stocks like Exxon Mobil) and could probably realize much higher returns. But, I appreciate the fact that many people that would be living in absolute poverty and further dragging down the economy have been saved by Social Security. So while it seems a bit unfair to me, I think it is ultimately another win / win.
For those of us that normally do the right thing……insure ourselves adequately, save sufficiently for retirement, pay our bills promptly and don’t aquire too much debt…. there can appear to be a basic inefficiency in having the Government force us into less efficient programs, and taken to extremes I believe this is true. But the fact is that a large percentage of the population either doesn’t or can’t do the right thing, and ultimately we end up paying for them anyway. Government intervention is often an organized effort to give those individuals a path to acting responsibly, and save us “right-doers” money in the long run.
My wife and I do not have kids, yet we pay an enormous amount of tax to support schools. I guess a true Libertarian would argue against this concept. Why should I pay for your kids to go to school? Now of course the argument in favor of taxing everyone is that having an educated population is ultimately good for society (contrary to the Santorum position that blind belief in a Catholic God is all the intelligence we really need). Smart people build a more vibrant and successful economy. Educated people are less likely to commit crimes. So ultimately even though I don’t have kids, I still benefit from personally subsidizing schools. Another win / win.
Of course, the government also forces me to pay taxes to pave roads, and maintain police departments, even though I seldom drive on interstates and almost never require the police, but I am glad they do it. I can see the personal benefit.
Less acceptable to me…. I could personally care less about Afghanistan, but a large percentage of my tax dollars are going to fight a war I am against. I wish I could mark the “opt out” on my tax return not to pay for wars or support the military-industrial complex, but that is not allowed. So while this does not feel like a win / win to me personally, I do see the need for a strong military, and recognize that society could not allow tax payers to choose not to fund defense. It is instead a political issue.
But then there are the many other things the Government forces me to subsidize that I really do find objectionable and I don’t think provide a return-on-investment. They do not seem to provide any semblance of a win / win for me.
I am not a religious person. I don’t care if you are – believe whatever you want and let me believe whatever I want – but I do not think I should subsidize your religious beliefs, anymore than I think you should subsidize my love of fly fishing, even though I find spirituality while on the river. On Sunday I don’t go to church, but I do enjoy a good brunch. I find a well-prepared eggs benedict to be a divine experience. So why is your religion tax-deductable, while I can’t deduct my spiritual activities? Why shouldn’t religious institutions pay income and property taxes? Or maybe the other question is – why can’t I deduct my fly fishing trips and the cost of my brunch?
Of course, the argument might be that religious donations ultimately go to helping the poor and less fortunate, and I would be more sympathetic to the deduction if that was always the case. But religions are often just sophisticated lobbies. Mitt’s religion spent millions of dollars to deny equal rights for Gay residents of California, and much of their revenue is spent not to help people, but primarily to recruit new church members. How did that benefit me or a starving family? The Catholic Church can deduct expenses to defend pedophile priests, and they are currently spending a lot of money to lobby against Obamacare.
In fact, tax deductions are really just another form of government subsidy, and perhaps they deserve public discussion just as much or more than Obamacare. Why is a public healthcare program a bigger step towards Communism or Socialism than massive subsidies for corn farmers, pharma, or fat-cat oil companies. As I pointed out in an earlier post, why should you subsidize the purchase of my Range Rover via the massive tax deduction I receive?
And for that matter, why are political donations tax deductable? Why should we all directly subsidize someone else’s love of Mitt, Newt, Obama, or for that matter whoever the American Nazi Party is supporting?
The truth is you can’t have it both ways. You can’t argue against any government intervention in your life, while arguing in favor of governmental support for the things that are important in your life.