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Obamacare’s Attack on the Work Ethic
Changing people’s incentives doesn’t make them freer.


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There is a point in almost every debate at which the losing party recognizes its predicament and concludes that its only remaining play is to try to corrupt the language. In Texas, pro-choice hero Wendy Davis has begun, risibly, to describe herself as “pro-life”; in his second inaugural, President Obama cloaked the most ambitious statist agenda in a half-century in the patois of limited government and rebellion; and, in my own country of birth, authorities that lock people up for speaking do so in the ostensible name of “respect.” If you can’t beat ’em, confuse ’em.

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Yesterday morning, Obamacare’s beleaguered partisans got in on the act, too. Responding to a CBO report that suggested the law would encourage more than 2 million people either to seek less work or to leave the labor market completely, progressives picked up their tricornered hats and their muskets, and started to shout incoherently about “freedom.” In a lovely illustration of the truism that progressives really haven’t the slightest clue what it is that conservatives believe, the Huffington Post’s Senior Congressional Reporter, Michael McAuliff, spoke for the cabal, suggesting ludicrously that,

There’s an irony in the GOP complaining that ACA lets people quit jobs. I mean, what’s wrong with freedom?

To answer a remarkably misguided rhetorical question, there is nothing at all “wrong with freedom.” As Patrick Henry rightly argued, above all other things “liberty ought to be the direct end” of government, for, after that, everything else is mere indulgence. But there is an awful lot “wrong” with using the word “freedom” where it does not apply. After all, it is one thing for a person to choose not to work and to accept the natural consequences of that decision, but quite another indeed for a person to choose not to work because others are being forced to subsidize his well-being. One can reasonably attest that redistributing wealth to underwrite preferred social outcomes is “necessary” or “virtuous” or “kind” or “practical” — or even, more cynically, that it is the inexorable end product of a democratic system in which one man can vote himself the contents of another’s wallet. But one cannot claim that it makes either man “free” — at least not without twisting the word and the concept that it represents beyond all meaningful recognition.

Does the Obama administration really plan to make the case that negative liberty is but a mirage and that, the state of nature’s “forcing” one to work being akin to actual compulsion, the state must step in everywhere to liberate the citizenry from reality’s harsh claims? One suspects not.

At the very same time as the White House and its friends were taking credit for having emancipated the American people from the indignities of having to keep down a career, others seemed to be insisting that the labor market and the government are wholly discrete entities. This isn’t about Obamacare “killing” jobs, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote, “it’s about workers — and the choices they make.” “Look at it this way,” he explained. “If someone says they decided to leave their job for personal reasons, most people would not say they ‘lost’ their jobs. They simply decided not to work.” To an extent, this distinction is a fair one, although there is a great deal of truth in The Economist’s observation that “a job is an economic transaction between a seller and a buyer of labour, and can be ‘destroyed’ if either seller or buyer walks away.”

Either way, it fails to address the material question, which is, “Why, in this case, will those people ‘decide not to work’?” The answer, of course, is that the intrusive federal action that one party supports and the other opposes has changed the calculation for them. It really is this simple: Before Obamacare, there was a status quo. With Obamacare, the government changed that status quo. As a result of that change, people are making different decisions. One can claim that the change will help to diminish youth unemployment or allow the elderly to enjoy more leisure time or do wonders for the gardening industry. But one can’t pretend that the state doesn’t have full culpability for those different decisions being made. That is a step too far.



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