Belmont Club


The reductio ad absurdum shows we must look elsewhere for some a principle to justify our actions. Allysia Finlay of the Wall Street Journal seriously asks why government health care mandates should be restricted to the provision of contraception. Why not mandate health club membership? Yoga classes? Or coffee? It is a reductio ad absurdum, but the value of the article lies in asking ourselves: why is it ridiculous? The reasons given for the proposed mandate are simple.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained that the administration was committed “to ensuring that women have access to contraception without paying any extra costs.” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) declared: “we should try very hard to give women universal access to birth control without going into their pockets.” The New York Times cited “an essential principle — free access to birth control for any woman.”

“Rights” are only the ostensible reason. But they are a misdirection, a MacGuffin diverting attention from the underlying issue, as revealed by the adjective “free access”. It’s not about rights or what should free.  It’s about who shells out. As the American Spectator puts it:

Someone has to pay. The only question is who.

If it were really free, then we would like more of it.  As the American Spectator puts it, what about “treatment for breast cancer, leukemia, colon cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Or my knee replacement. If contraception should be ‘free,’ why not these other far more vital treatments? Why allow deductibles and co-pays to discourage anyone from getting any medical treatment?”

The socialist would of course answer that it should all be free. Unfortunately reality puts a limit on the satisfaction of our needs because of resource scarcity.  The sad fact of life is we can always construct a wish list bigger than our wallet.  But in the end we have to apportion our dollars. Decide between that night out on the town and saving money toward that Harley Davidson. As the Rolling Stones once put it, “you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

Given the depressing fact of scarcity, the American Spectator asks: who decides what you get?  You could, for example. Or the government could.

That question is the subject of this humorous video from Reason Magazine below in which the actor raps about the relative merits of letting a government commission “mandate” the provision of cough drops versus going down to Walgreens and choosing them yourself. In either case you’re paying for the cough drops because the ultimate source of the government’s “free money” is always you, assuming that you are gainfully employed and pay taxes.

It’s always you or somebody else, unless we find a way to tax space aliens or create something from nothing. The Middle is really Excluded in this instance, there is no “false choice”, no way out.

Ultimately Sandra Fluke is going to pay for all the “rights” that are awarded to her. Every single one — either she pays or somebody else pays.  No other possibility. The question becomes who pays. So the “free access” to any good in which the consumer doesn’t pay simply fits the definition of a transfer payment.

Once it is realized that the Sandra Fluke’s proposal is all about dollars and cents one realizes that Allysia Finlay’s WSJ article about mandating coffee in the office as a right is not so absurd at all. Government is all about tax and spend. Transfer payments, moving stuff from one set of people to the other. They’ve been doing it for centuries. This is just one more little extension. Today contraception, tomorrow coffee.  It’s perfectly mundane. Describing it as a right doesn’t make it any different from any other tax and spend program.

One interesting side-issue in this debate is whether mandates an efficient mechanism for providing coffee, cough-drops, gym memberships or contraceptives. For some, like Fluke, they are, because there is an exact coincidence between what the administration wants and what that consumer wants. Others, however, would have wanted something else. But it is the nature of scarce money that once it is spent for one thing it is unavailable for another. Providing “rights” of a certain kind preclude the provision of others. Open one door, close another.

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try real hard, you might remember when you could.

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