A Zero-Sum Game with Obamacare?

The main reason conservatives are so steadfast in their opposition to Obamacare is that they believe in the hard-and-fast rule that more government equals less freedom for citizens. In other words, conservatives see the relationship between the government and the people as a zero-sum game, with each win for one amounting to a loss for the other. There’s an obvious kernel of truth to this reasoning: government exists to govern after all, to set limits, to establish guidelines and create an incentive system to get the people to adhere to them. At a fundamental level, then, government exists to control behavior; therefore less government ought to mean more freedom. At the same time, governments inevitably become their own separate entities demanding a share of a society’s resources to sustain themselves.

More government means more taxes, which in turn means less takehome and less freedom to spend and invest. To make matters worse, governments tend to creep. Every time society faces a new challenge, there’s a temptation to create a new government agency to address it, and every time you create a new agency you effectively create a new interest group made up of those it employs and those it serves. So our task as citizens, conservative thinking goes, is to resist any increase in the size of government and do whatever we can to shrink the government we already have. This is the conservative philosophy in a nutshell—and it shows why for conservatives Obamacare was already a catastrophe even before the ink was dry.

As citizens, though, we must ask whether the relationship between the government and the people really is a zero-sum game. With a moment’s reflection it’s relatively easy to come up with some scenarios in which government is actually playing a positive-sum game with the people—a win for one also means a win for the other. A store owner pays taxes, limiting his freedom, but those taxes go to funding the construction of better roads, which makes it easier for customers to drive to the store, increasing his profits. A driver has to obey strict rules on the road, but those rules make driving much safer. We pay a percentage of our income to the government so law enforcement officers prevent thieves from stealing everything we own. What about those government employees and the beneficiaries of their services? Even if we assume the agency in question in no way benefits anyone beyond its reach, those beneficiaries will still have more to spend at other people’s stores, and they’ll be less prone to committing acts of violence to procure the things they need to survive, so it won’t be a total loss.

            By acknowledging that not every win for government is a loss for the people, we’ve reframed the question about whether a bigger government can ever be a good thing to one about how effective government is at improving the lives of the people it serves. The notion that Obamacare can’t be a good idea simply because it means more government really doesn’t make sense outside the conservatives’ ideological antagonism toward government. We must ask instead what the consequences of Obamacare going into effect will be on American citizens. To answer that, we need to examine all the provisions included in the law. Of course, things start getting complicated as soon as we begin such an examination—and that’s precisely why simple hard-and-fast rules like more government means less freedom get so much traction in public debates. They serve as time- and attention-saving heuristics, and we’re all desperate for those. But we all also know that attempts at finding shortcuts often backfire, and we often can’t trust the people who point them out to us.

            Since our government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, the question of its ideal size is nonsensical. We must rather ask whether and how well each proposed law or agency will serve the people, whether it will serve them fairly, and whether it’s worth the costs. But, if we still want to come up with some basis for estimating the optimal size of government, keeping in mind that the more-government-less-freedom rule is built on faulty premises, we could compare governments against the well-being of their citizens across all the nations of the world. We can all probably agree at the outset that the extremes of anarchy in places like Somalia on the one side and totalitarianism in places like North Korea on the other are less than ideal. But countries that seem to be doing much better than the US on several measures—happiness, education outcomes, relative safety—actually have governments that are much bigger than ours. Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP in Norway is 43.5, in Switzerland 29.2, in Finland 43.9, in Sweden 49.5, and in America 27.3.  These correlations between larger governments and measures of citizens’ well-being involve far too many confounding factors to suggest a hard-and-fast rule in the direction opposite to the one conservatives apply, but they really do show that the question of the ideal size of government is essentially pointless.    

            So let’s stop talking about Obamacare, or any other law, in terms of its impact on the size of government and focus instead on the impact it will have on our lives. 

Also read: What's Wrong with the Darwin Economy?