May 2014
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Republicans and Free Riders

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Cliven Bundy flap was the best ethical spectacle of the last few months, and a first rate case study in the semiotics of the Republican Party. Bundy as sign: the man himself was the signifier, with his kindly face and cowboy hat; his significance was “noble rebel against monstrously interventive government”. Yet the whole thing was as wrong, as creepy outside the hermetically sealed Republican cloud chamber, as if the Democrats had idolized a crack dealer as freedom fighter.

The Republican account left out, really didn’t seem to notice at all, that Bundy was taking a benefit for free, of grazing on public land, that everyone else around him was paying for. Twenty years ago, when I worked in the business world and briefly had some money, I contemplated buying a ranch in Texas, and evaluated the financial model under which a guy from Brooklyn owns one without having to raise cattle of his own: you sell the grazing rights to other people. Its a familiar and comfortable model wherever people own grassland and other people have cows. (I was going to name my ranch the Fuckin’ A, and put a great big thumbs-up image on my sign. )

Cliven Bundy is almost the only cow-owner in the west who thinks he should be able to let his cows eat other people’s grass and not pay for it. He is, in our words, a thief and a cheat or, in more benign Kantian terms, a free rider.

Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is one of the simplest and most compelling ethical discoveries ever made; it is essentially an expansion of Jesus’ “Do unto others”. Kant proposed that we should never take an action unless we would be contented with the consequences of everyone else doing the same. Before jumping the turnstile at the subway, ask yourself what would happen if everyone did every day: there would be no subway. Same question regarding stealing a newspaper from the corner store, littering, dumping dioxin into the environment. Anyone who thinks that everyone else should behave differently, lawfully, to enable his own singular behavior, is a free rider: you all keep buying Metrocards so I can ride for free.

The Cliven Bundy situation is not unique. The encouragement of free riding has become a major element of the Republican thought-environment, and I only started with Bundy because he is a colorful, simple and clearly bizarre example. The one I really wanted to talk about, but had to spend a moment working up to, is Obamacare.

Again, there is a government and an individual. As with Cliven Bundy, the government is insisting the individual do something: pay for health insurance in the one instance, pay for grazing on grassland in the other. In both cases, the Republicans are saying the government is being monstrous, forcing you to do something you don’t want to do. Dissenting from the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, Justice Scalia compared the mandate to the government ordering you to eat broccoli. I can come up with some other enjoyable changes on that theme: the government ordering you to wear your underwear on the outside. The fastest runners to wear handicapping weights like horses. Stamp Taxes on newspapers (time for a Tea Party!) Ordering you to kneel in the presence of authority!

Scalia is locked inside the cloud chamber too (or more likely faking it--unlike some of the ditto-heads, I think he’s too intelligent to believe some of what he says).In the brains of everyone who doesn’t think she should be forced to buy insurance, is the completely unspoken, unexamined assumption that without it, she will nevertheless be treated at the emergency room. Like Cliven Bundy and the grass, these folk think they will receive a benefit without having to pay for it. This is critical, hugely significant, but is never spoken about: the elephant in the room.

American hospitals with emergency rooms are universally subject to a rule that they must treat everyone who comes in, regardless of ability to pay. The cause is a government mandate which itself should be shocking to Republicans: you cannot enter the private hospital business without agreeing to treat deadbeats in your emergency room. This is one of those legal rules which are made for moral reasons, because the alternative is too disturbing: we don’t want to live in a culture in which a shooting victim bleeds for minutes while nurses search his pockets for his insurance card, and where the sidewalk outside the ER is heaped with the bodies of people who couldn’t pay. Even though this rule is made for salutary reasons, it is the same rule, in all respects, as one which would require the corner store to give groceries to everyone regardless of ability to pay.

This is an American reality which is having horrendous consequences everywhere. St. Vincent’s Hospital, an eighty-year old institution founded by nuns, went out of business recently because for years it had been forced by law to render millions of dollars of medical services to trauma and heart attack victims who didn’t pay. Numerous other New York hospitals have closed for the same reason, while more are circling the drain as I write (Interfaith, where my dad worked for twenty years, and Long Island College Hospital, which was my local ER when I lived in Brooklyn). The system is not working, requiring hospitals to treat people without being paid by anyone. Single payer would have been a solution to that problem, but so is Obamacare.

I don’t see any moral or practical distinction between the health insurance mandate and the car insurance mandate current in most states including New York: want to drive on roads? Buy insurance! Nobody can credibly claim a human right to refuse insurance and yet drive on roads. Anyone who did would be a free rider, expecting everyone else’s insurance and taxes to subsidize her driving.

The Republican party, describing the Obamacare insurance mandate as an invasion of liberty, is promoting free riders as surely as it was with Cliven Bundy. And as obliviously. Which is bizarre, because Republicans hate free riders: “welfare queens” living high at everyone else’s expense, etc.

I went on a right-leaning message board and attempted to discuss this feature of the Obamacare debate, wondering if I am missing something. I can’t say I know this board to be completely representative of average members and supporters of the Republican or Tea Parties or the Cato Institute or anyone in particular, because I don’t really know anything about the people who post there. I believe I had a typical experience, but I can’t prove it.

However, the majority of the people who responded to me went sideways whenever I said the words “free rider” and started talking about something else, a pretty good sign that someone has no real answer to an argument. The only attempt at a straight answer to my Kantian imperative question was that there are no free riders in emergency rooms because everyone is legally required to pay, and the hospital can enforce a judgment, seize their possessions etc. (ironically,much as the government is trying to seize Cliven Bundy's cows for nonpayment of the grazing fees). But this answer is a complete nonsequitur, because the world is full of “judgment proof” people (some poor, some skilled at hiding their assets) who know when they walk into the E.R. that they will never pay for the services they receive. Groceries are not required to give steaks or canned soup to these people on faith, so why should hospitals be required to give surgery? And, again, hospitals are closing their doors in the real world because of the success of these people in not paying.

In fact, this answer could be used to justify all of my other examples of free riding: it is all right for people to jump subway turnstiles because they are legally obligated to pay, for example. In fact, that makes this answer itself fail Kant’s test: every time we are debating an example of free riding anywhere, would you want everyone to justify it by offering this argument? (I think we are now dealing with an example of a meta-categorical imperative But I’ll move on.)

That was the closest I came to getting any kind of an answer to my question about free ridership. Mostly I received abuse and threats, and then the board owner blocked me. It was all a civics lesson, and not a particularly surprising one.

Why do Republicans have such a blind spot to Kantian ethics and free riders? I think there are two answers. There is an elite, like Senator Ted Cruz, who went to Harvard Law School a few years after I did, who are too intelligent to believe half the things they say. These, in my opinion, are amoral people, sociopaths really, seizing on handy tropes to win votes, inflame opinion, and consolidate power. Scary people. Behind them are the ditto-heads, like the ones I met on the message board, who are mainly reasonably smart people made stupid by ideology.