by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Perusing the work of his fellow pundits and prognosticators, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal finds that liberal blogger Ezra Klein makes use of the “prisoner’s dilemma” argument in his latest column. Klein urges young people to support ObamaCare by purchasing overly costly health insurance policies. Taranto picks Klein’s argument apart.
[S]elf-interest can converge with aggregate group interest if the game is played repeatedly, so that the players establish the ability to trust each other to cooperate (remain silent) rather than defect (confess), thereby overcoming their “cramped and narrow view of self-interest.” Similarly, Klein argues, if young and healthy people pony up for overpriced insurance now, they will benefit later when they’re able to buy an “affordable” policy when they need it, courtesy of the next generation’s inflated premiums.
There are several problems with this argument. For one, although it seems indisputable that a high degree of cooperation is a necessary condition for making ObamaCare sustainable, it is far from clear that it is a sufficient one. ObamaCare could collapse under the weight of other political, economic or demographic pressures. (Medicare in its current form is unsustainable over the long term, at least without massive tax increases–notwithstanding near-universal “cooperation” in the form of payroll withholdings.)
Even if we assume that widespread cooperation by young adults would be sufficient to sustain ObamaCare until they’re well into middle age, any individual’s cooperation would have too negligible an effect to be either sufficient or necessary. Klein’s argument is analogous to pious exhortations that “your vote makes a difference.” For the most part that is true only cumulatively: When hundreds or thousands or millions of citizens believe their votes count, they do. But even in Florida in 2000, any individual voter could have stayed home and it would only have made the difference between a 537-vote margin and a 536- or 538-vote one.
Many people take satisfaction in voting even though it is not, in this sense, entirely “rational.” But a lot fewer people would vote if they had to pay for the privilege, especially if the price tag were as high as that of an ObamaCare policy. Even a minimal charge for voting–a “poll tax,” in American parlance–is constitutionally forbidden, and people of Klein’s ideological orientation are hypersensitive about any procedure that reduces the convenience of voting. It’s odd to expect young people to absorb huge costs to make ObamaCare work–especially when some of them will see the decision not to buy insurance as a “vote” against the law.