Monday, December 28, 2009

What Harm Could it Do?

Megan McCardle writes at Asymmetrical Information under the pseudonym "Jane Galt." She's a libertarian and has posted a marvelous meditation on how the Law of Unintended Consequences has haunted liberal "reforms" of the last fifty years and is likely to haunt others in the years ahead. Her main point is that attempts by liberals (and libertarians) to tinker with traditional marriage by expanding it to include same-sex couples could well have deeply regrettable consequences. It's happened before.

She writes:

Unlike most libertarians, I don't have an opinion on gay marriage, and I'm not going to have an opinion no matter how much you bait me. However, I had an interesting discussion last night with another libertarian about it, which devolved into an argument about a certain kind of liberal/libertarian argument about gay marriage that I find really unconvincing.

Social conservatives of a more moderate stripe are essentially saying that marriage is an ancient institution, which has been carefully selected for throughout human history. It is a bedrock of our society; if it is destroyed, we will all be much worse off. (See what happened to the inner cities between 1960 and 1990 if you do not believe this.) For some reason, marriage always and everywhere, in every culture we know about, is between a man and a woman; this seems to be an important feature of the institution. We should not go mucking around and changing this extremely important institution, because if we make a bad change, the institution will fall apart.

A very common response to this is essentially to mock this as ridiculous. "Why on earth would it make any difference to me whether gay people are getting married? Why would that change my behavior as a heterosexual?"

To which social conservatives reply that institutions have a number of complex ways in which they fulfill their roles, and one of the very important ways in which the institution of marriage perpetuates itself is by creating a romantic vision of oneself in marriage that is intrinsically tied into expressing one's masculinity or femininity in relation to a person of the opposite sex; stepping into an explicitly gendered role. This may not be true of every single marriage, and indeed undoubtedly it is untrue in some cases. But it is true of the culture-wide institution. By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.

To which, again, the other side replies "That's ridiculous! I would never change my willingness to get married based on whether or not gay people were getting married!"

Now, economists hear this sort of argument all the time. "That's ridiculous! I would never start working fewer hours because my taxes went up!" This ignores the fact that you may not be the marginal case. The marginal case may be some consultant who just can't justify sacrificing valuable leisure for a new project when he's only making 60 cents on the dollar. The result will nonetheless be the same: less economic activity. Similarly, you--highly educated, firmly socialised, upper middle class you--may not be the marginal marriage candidate; it may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't mean that the institution of marriage won't be weakened in America just the same.

I am bothered by this specific argument, which I have heard over and over from the people I know who favor gay marriage laws. I mean, literally over and over; when they get into arguments, they just repeat it, again and again. "I will get married even if marriage is expanded to include gay people; I cannot imagine anyone up and deciding not to get married because gay people are getting married; therefore, the whole idea is ridiculous and bigoted."

They may well be right. Nonetheless, libertarians should know better. The limits of your imagination are not the limits of reality. Every government programme that libertarians have argued against has been defended at its inception with exactly this argument.

Let me take three major legal innovations, one of them general, two specific to marriage.

What follows should daunt the enthusiasm of the most reckless liberal bent on reforming something or another in our polity, but you'll need to read it for yourself.

Society is like a delicate explosive and reformers are often like those who tinker with them in their basements without knowing exactly what they're doing. Sometimes they succeed only in blowing up themselves and everything around them.


Costs and Benefits

One of the selling points for the current health care legislation is that it'll reduce the deficit by $132 billion dollars over ten years while insuring 30 million more Americans. How might such blessings be achieved?

Randall Hoven at American Thinker does the math. It turns out that the Democrat plan assumes cuts of about $483 billion dollars from medicare, medicaid, and SCHIP. In other words, the Democrats are going to take benefits away from the poor, the young and the elderly in order to pay for their extravagance.

Moreover, the plan will raise costs for businesses which will put more people, mostly marginal employees, out of work which will in turn hurt the poor even more.

Here's Hoven:

You get "deficit reduction" by cutting Medicare and raising taxes by more than $1 trillion: Medicare and other program cuts of $483 billion, and an extra $521 billion in new taxes and fees.

The cuts include cuts across Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program: $186 billion from permanent reductions in payment rates for fee-for-service, $118 billion for payment rate reductions based on bids submitted, and $43 billion from reducing payments to hospitals that serve low-income patients. In all, it's a $483-billion cut from Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP.

Hoven then goes on to explain briefly the unfunded mandates contained in the bill:

... the legislation would require individuals to obtain acceptable health insurance coverage...

The legislation also would penalize medium-sized and large employers that did not offer health insurance...

The legislation would impose a number of mandates, including requirements on issuers of health insurance, standards governing health information, and nutrition labeling requirements.

The bill still contains a provision that's essentially a pathway to a "public option:"

[This legislation would replace] a 'public plan' that would be run by the Department of Health and Human Services with 'multi-state' plans that would be offered under contract with the Office of Personnel Management ...

And even contains a path to the dreaded "death panels:"

The legislation also would establish an Independent Payment Advisory Board, which would be required, under certain circumstances, to recommend changes to the Medicare program to limit the rate of growth in that program's spending. Those recommendations would go into effect automatically unless blocked by subsequent legislative action.

I hope you are comforted. When that "advisory" board says no expensive cancer drug for you -- cheap pain pills only -- you can still hope that "subsequent legislative action" is taken to reverse that decision. That is to say that the only thing that prevents the "advisory board" from being a "death panel" is the hope that Congress will override it.

Here's a question we might all ask ourselves: If a Republican had made a proposal that would cut medicare and profoundly impact the poor and children would we favor it or oppose it? If we would oppose cutting benefits to these groups had those cuts been suggested by Republicans then should we not oppose them just as vigorously if they been proposed by Democrats?