The Corner

Rational Ignorance, Obamacare Edition

I suspect that Ramesh is right about the so-called Affordable Care Act’s depressing effect on Democrats, and I believe — and hope! — that it will continue into the upcoming election. I doubt that Chris Matthews is right about Democrats’ losing the Senate, but I hope he is.

Obamacare is deeply unpopular. But I wonder, does anybody know what it is?

A fair number of people who were paying attention know what it was. But the ACA, like President Obama’s approval rating, isn’t what it used to be. By Anthony Ciani’s count, there have been at least 20 changes to the law made unilaterally by the president. Some of those unilateral changes, if not all of them, are probably illegal, and may face legal challenges. There may be other unilateral changes made. The result is that people are unsure which parts of the law that they are expected to comply with and which parts they will be expected to comply with in a year or two.

Political-science types talk about something called “rational ignorance” — when the individual voter’s ability to influence the particulars of a given issue is so minuscule that it is not rationally worth putting in the time and work to become fully informed about the issue — and I’d bet a fair amount of money that rational ignorance regarding the current status of the ACA describes the state of some 99 percent of U.S. voters. In fact, I’d be surprised if anybody not named Avik Roy or Reihan Salam (or possibly Kathleen Sibelius, but possibly not) could even detail those 20 unilateral changes without doing a little homework first. We are all low-information voters now.

And even the best-informed among us can only know so much about the ACA — because it is subject to change at whatever time and in whatever way Barack Obama’s political self-interest dictates. That is one of the most important problems with Congress’s effectively punting its legislative responsibilities to unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch: The ACA is arguably the most important piece of domestic legislation of our time, and the American public has relatively little ability to deal with it through democratic means, because it is largely a creature of the undemocratic bureaucracy and is constantly being changed through undemocratic ad-hocracy.

The best plausible response here is to subject the ACA’s authors to the political equivalent of blunt-force trauma, which means taking the Senate away from them in 2014, shrinking their minority in the House, and putting an anti-Obamacare president in the White House in 2016, assuming that the issue has not been rendered less urgent by some new crisis such as a war with Russia or nuclear shenanigans from the atomic ayatollahs or a fiscal meltdown. But if no such existential crisis emerges and Obamacare remains a dominant issue, then it may be the case that a simple platform of repeal  will be politically more effective than an Octoberfest of wonkery describing in great detail the Republican alternative. Of course there will have to be a solid Republican alternative, but if the public’s real operational knowledge of Obamacare is limited to the fact that it stinks and is making life worse for more people than it is helping, then “Kill It Dead!” may be enough of a political platform.

But given the fact that Joe Biden is vice president of these United States, I cannot pretend to understand whatever it is that is going on inside the brain of the American voter. I’d be interested in hearing the views of my more campaign-savvy colleagues. 

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