Good News Bears

January 17, 2010

Brian Leiter directs our attention — somewhat hyperbolically, I think — to this startling bit of wingnuttery from Charles Rowley, a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Given the closing quote, Leiter suggests that Rowley is calling for the assassination of the president. That’s a terrible thing to call for, of course, and it is maybe even true that Rowley is calling for that, but I’m here to rescue readers of Rowley’s ramblings from any such absurd conclusion.

Namely, Rowley’s logic is so manifestly abominable that even a merely moderately astute reader should ascertain that the concluding remarks are only randomly tacked on, and that the substance of the argument doesn’t affix to the concluding remarks.

Rowley uses this clever device to suggest that the current health care legislation signals a descent into tyranny:

Suppose, dear reader, that, while residing legally in the United States, you choose  not to purchase a daily newspaper.  Perhaps your choice is determined by a concern that all newspapers varnish the truth, perhaps by budgetary constraints.  Suppose that you choose not to outlay your monies on an annual vacation, perhaps because you believe that ‘your nest is always best’, perhaps because of budgetary constraints.  Suppose  that a bigot is elected to the presidency and ‘persuades’ Congress to require you to purchase a newspaper, or  to fine you for not so doing ; to require you to take an annual vacation, or to fine you for not so doing.  Would you not be alarmed, dear reader, by such an invasion of your liberty to engage or not to engage in specific market activities? Would you not view such an intervention as an act of tyranny much more serious than the eighteenth century interventions by King George III merely to tax certain kinds of consumption while yet leaving  his colonists  free to purchase or not to purchase the affected items?

Okay, suppose…

Suppose you choose not to purchase a daily newspaper. Not so implausible. I rarely purchase a newspaper, as most of the news is free online.

Suppose also that you choose not to outlay your monies on an annual vacation. Also not so implausible. I rarely outlay my monies. I like to keep my monies for myself, thank you very much.

Suppose then that a bigot is elected to the presidency. Okay. Let’s suppose that. The newly-elected president’s bigotry is deeply relevant to what, exactly?

Suppose also that the aforementioned bigot scare-quotedly persuades Congress to require everyone to purchase the aforementioned daily newspaper. Would I be upset about that?

Damn right I’d be upset about that… I’d be upset about that because there is no good reason for a bigot (or a government) to force me to purchase a daily newspaper. My consumption of the news is not a public good; simply having a newspaper in my hands does not at all translate into my having read, understood, and digested the news; the fact that I do not have a daily copy of a newspaper in my hands does not in any direct or indirect way impact someone else’s consumption of the daily news.

If this is somehow supposed to parallel an insurance situation, we’re missing a lot of connective tissue.

Fact is, all government policies and regulations, and even all non-government policies and regulations (to which one is subject) are moderately to extensively coercive. Moral rules, codes of behavior, federal and state laws, rules of thumb, rules of the workforce — these are all oriented around offering some external guidance to support good and bad, right and wrong, desirable and undesirable, behaviors. It’s the justification of the rules, the reason for the rules, that matters…not that there are rules.

That a rule or law comes into effect that may require a person to change his or her behavior ought not alone to be problematic, even if you are the staunchest libertarian at the anarchy party.

So please, put down the guns and let’s have a serious discussion about what rules are rules that will make the world better and more just.


  1. Well, I’m not about to pick up a gun, but it does seem to me that a mandate to purchase insurance is a new thing. Am I wrong? Can you name another instance where the government compels the purchase of a product from a business?

    The closest I can think of is automobile insurance, which I can avoid by not driving. The health insurance seems to apply to anyone who breathes.

    I’m no constitutional lawyer, but it doesn’t take that to predict a legal challenge to the mandate.

  2. The government mandates we purchase of all sorts of products… the money is just laundered though taxation before it’s spent on stealth bombers and water treatment facilities.

  3. Hi KC,

    Yes, the government currently takes money from me, then spends it on stuff.

    Demanding that I directly spend my money to purchase a specified product seems like a different thing to me, though you obviously disagree. I’ll find the court decision interesting, whichever way it goes.

    Is there some other example I’m not thinking of where I’m already mandated to purchase some commercial product?

    I’ve still been trying to think of one. Various forms of interest may be required bu various contracts (a lender may require I buy hazard insurance for my house), but in every case I can just refuse the contract.


    • Bah …
      “various forms of INSURANCE may be required BY various contracts.”

      … and there’s not doubt a typo in my correction.

  4. I’ve been longing to find an outlet for my Twitter-length summary of the American War of Independence/Revolutionary War. Your post gives me the thinnest of excuses, but I’m gonna take it:

    Titular monarch: Landgrabbers to pay for protection from grabees. Tyranny! War! Froggy despot wins war. Grabbers elect despot. Ah democracy!

  5. Bob makes an EXCELLENT argument for single payer.

    OTOH Medicare Part D is exactly a mandate that your buy insurance from a third party.

    • Hi Eli,

      Thanks! You’re exactly right wrt single payer, and that’s clarified my thinking. Although I wasn’t thinking about single payer, I was trying to argue that a mandate to purchase health insurance would be somehow a fundamentally new thing from the government in the same way that “single payer” is not. Single payer fits just fine with the “Government takes my money and does stuff with it” model. Perhaps I don’t approve of said “stuff” (handing Goldman Sachs a trillion dollars wasn’t high on my list, for example), but deciding which “stuff” to spend on is a fine topic of conversation.

      Still, perhaps I’m wrong in the first place, and your Medicare Part D example is the same thing. Are Medicare recipients compelled to purchase insurance under Part D? Or do they simply have an opportunity to do so?


      • Its a little bit complicated but runs this way, if you don’t enroll when you are initially eligible, you pay a 1% increased premium penalty for every month you are unenrolled until you finally do enroll.

        This cherry picking penalty also operates in the German system. If you take the less expensive private insurance when you are young, you are locked out of the public plan forever, which bites when you get old and the private plans are more expensive. Any US plan is going to have to have a cherry picking penalty

  6. Oh yeah, fwiw, that;s a feature not a bug at GMU

  7. I would argue that the government does mandate individual, direct purchases in some cases… parents are required to provide their children with food, shelter, clothing, etc. for example. Safety nets exist to aid in the provision of those goods (WIC, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, low income housing, etc.) much in the same way that the insurance bill provides subsidies for low income individuals and families in the face of a mandate.

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