10/02/2013

The Case Against Hope

Via-WSJ
May ObamaCare fail quickly and spectacularly.

By JAMES TARANTO

Some people hate ObamaCare, others love it (at least in theory). Then there's the Washington Post. The Post kinda likes it but recognizes that there is a range of legitimate opinion, including "fair-minded critics on the left," who kinda dislike it "because they would prefer a single-payer system," and even "fair-minded critics on the right," who kinda dislike it "because it devotes federal money to pay for health care rather than to paying down the debt, or because they don't like the idea of the government requiring people to buy insurance."

But the Post deplores "unreasonable critics," those with the "loudest voices"--namely "unions that object to the end of government subsidies" and "demagogues, such as Sen. Ted Cruz," who disagree with "most economists" as to the likely consequences of the new plan.

In its headline, the Post puts forth an emotional mandate: "Everyone Should Hope ObamaCare Works." The argument is as follows:

Apart from GOP obstructionism, the biggest threat to Obamacare may be the still-distinct possibility that not enough people will buy insurance, even with government help. If only the oldest and sickest enter the new insurance system, costs to the government and to customers who don't get government subsidies could be higher than estimated. . . .
As with any big rollout, there will no doubt be problems, many of them mundane. Computer systems will not work perfectly. Some people might have to sign up over the phone or on paper. But everyone should hope that those sorts of problems--and the overheated rhetoric of critics--do not deter too many people from buying insurance. Many Americans' health depends on it.
This column vigorously disagrees. We resent being told how to feel, and we hope ObamaCare fails, spectacularly and quickly.

We hope it fails spectacularly because that would provide an emotionally satisfying dramatic conclusion. If Barack Obama is forced to spend, say, the last two years of his presidency contending with the undeniable failure of his signature initiative, that would be a fitting punishment for the hubris of his first two years, especially since the imposition of ObamaCare on an unwilling country was the main consequence of his hubris.

We hope it fails quickly for an additional reason: to minimize the damage. Imagine if the Post had written a similar editorial in 1917, after the Russian Revolution, titled "Everyone Should Hope Communism Works." That would have seemed equally high-minded: If communism didn't work, tens of millions of people would be made miserable.

Which, of course, is precisely what happened over the next 70-plus years. The Post might respond that that's an argument against communism rather than an argument against hoping communism works. But when you put it that way, it's not such a clear distinction, is it? The communist revolution would not have succeeded absent a critical mass of people hopeful communism would work. Nor would it have endured as long as it did if no one had an emotional interest in its perpetuation.

Hope, in other words, poses a moral hazard: It can be a species of pathological altruism. And consider the perversity of the Post's logic as applied to the dramatic arc of Soviet communism: By the editorialists' reckoning, those of us who cheered the fall of the Berlin Wall were heartless boors indulging in Schadenfreude.

The case for hoping ObamaCare "works" is unpersuasive even on the narrow grounds upon which the Post rests it, namely that if it fails because young, healthy people don't sign up, the people "whose health depends on it" will suffer.

To hope that ObamaCare helps the latter group is also to hope that the young get bamboozled into buying insurance that is vastly overpriced relative to their risk profile. One may argue that deceiving the young is a lesser evil than refraining from helping the old and sick. But the Post does not acknowledge that trade-off.

That is, it fails to admit that ObamaCare cannot "work" unless it is massively successful in deceiving Americans who have done nothing wrong other than to be young at the wrong time. When you think about it from that angle, hoping ObamaCare "works" sounds a lot more cynical than high-minded.

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