On the obligation to oppose

This is a joint post by Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll.

Ross Douthat has a measured and reasoned response to our support for a discussion about Medicaid reform simultaneous with encouragement of expansion. Stop now and go read it. Then come back.

Douthat makes some excellent points, with which we largely agree, and one point with which we do not.

America rarely just “tries out” major expansions of the welfare state: Rather, our history strongly suggests that programs in motion tend to stay in motion, and that the best time to change a potentially-dysfunctional system is before it gets entrenched — before interest groups organize themselves around perpetuating those dysfunctions, before voters become accustomed to the program’s guarantees, and before the political system learns to take its existence for granted and turns to other debates instead. Whereas once something becomes the Way We Redistribute, it’s both hard to pare back and harder to propose alternatives, no matter what the data ultimately show about the program’s actual effectiveness.

It’s true, as Frakt and Carroll note, that no alternative reform is likely to be implemented as quickly as Obamacare itself. But it’s also true that if you favor a substantially-different alternative, cheering on the law’s full implementation while participating in a “conversation about how to make [it] more efficient and effective” is likely to lead to that alternative being passed sometime around the Fourth of Never. And this reality means, in turn, that for all the dilemmas that the current state of the Republican Party creates for thoughtful opponents of the new health care law, they still have an obligation to oppose.

The “obligation to oppose” is an illogical leap from a premise with which we agree. It is true that it will be hard to change a redistributive program once it begins doing its redistributing. Path dependency is a real thing. The state of our health system and the difficulty in changing it demonstrates it.

But recognizing that does not by itself obligate anyone to oppose Medicaid expansion. It only suggests one should weigh its likely inertia and imperfections against the moral implications of doing nothing. We, ourselves, have confronted this dilemma. There are many things we’d like to change about Medicaid and other facets of our health system. We understand that it will be hard, and some things we dislike may never change. Yet we are not obligated to oppose any more than we’re required to support. One has to do the moral calculus for oneself. One can still come down on the side that doing nothing is preferable to expanding Medicaid in one of the forms currently permitted by law. But, by no means is one obligated to do so.

To suggest obligation is a direct appeal to political loyalty, is it not? If this is about politics then we will concede the point to Douthat and move on. But if we’re talking how to craft policy to help poor Americans, that’s a discussion in which we want to participate, but only if we shed this nonsensical idea that anyone is obligated to anything. Is this an open minded discussion or not?

We want to re-emphasize the context of this discussion. Medicaid expansion, and the ACA in general, isn’t arbitrary policy. It had the support of the a majority of the House of Representatives, a supermajority in the Senate, and the President of the United States, who ran with health reform as a major plank of his platform. And then he won re-election. The policy was even examined and modified by the Supreme Court, on which sit a majority of conservative-appointed Justices.

Moreover, it’s not like there isn’t room for movement within the law. Do you want more of a managed care option? That’s what Florida’s governor got. Do you want more private insurance options instead? That’s where Arkansas is headed. The Obama administration seems more than willing to negotiate. That some alternative to traditional Medicaid will be possible on the “Fourth of Never” is obviously not true. Beyond that, a future administration can use the same waiver process as the current one to further widen the scope of the possible. We doubt the next Republican president will take office on the “Fourth of Never.”

The ACA, and those who support it, want to make sure people who earn below 138% of the poverty line get assistance with the high price of health care that they could never pay out of pocket. Period. Opposing the Medicaid expansion – in any of its forms – would deny many poor people that help. Some even oppose Arkansas’s private option. They are denying people access to the type of private insurance that most of the rest of us enjoy because, yes, we can afford it. But we do so with a lot of government money. We give people at the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum thousands of dollars a year in tax breaks for their employer-sponsored insurance. It seems reasonable that we should be able to do this for people far less fortunate than ourselves.

Just saying “no” is just that – saying “no”. We agree that Obamacare opponents need to do more than that. We don’t agree that they are obligated to oppose every policy option that isn’t exactly to their liking until they build a coalition in support of a preferred alternative. To conclude as much takes more reasoning than Douthat has offered.

@aaronecarroll and @afrakt

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