The problem of progressive arrogance

Rich Rodgers had a post at Blue Oregon this weekend lamenting the fact that some people stubbornly refuse to get on board with the public option for health insurance. He suggests that in the face of such irrationality there’s nothing to do now but agree to disagree. Maybe he’d have more luck convincing his opponents if he treated them with a little more respect. Here’s his opening:

Free market economists use models that assume that people are given complete information and make rational decisions. How absurd. No one has complete information, most people have terribly unreliable information, and people make stupid decisions all the time. Witness the election of George W. Bush in 2004.

There are many intelligent people who describe themselves as free market economists. One or two of them have probably noticed that in the real world people don’t have perfect information. Yet those silly economists persist in their crazy beliefs! Perhaps that’s because they realize that simplified models are often useful starting points for understanding the world. The arguments of free market economists don’t depend on perfectly informed buyers and sellers any more than the designs of engineers depend on perfectly frictionless surfaces.

If Rodgers bothered to look into what libertarian economists actually think he’d see that it’s often the absence of perfect information that drives them to support markets. If knowledge was easily obtainable there’d be little reason not to hand over power to enlightened planners; we’d just figure out what’s efficient and do it. Unfortunately no one person or agency has that much information, so we use markets and price signals to coordinate the dispersed and incomplete knowledge of market actors.

At the risk of being overly generous, I’m assuming that Rodgers doesn’t think we should set up public options to pay for our groceries, our oil changes, our TV sets, or any of countless other goods we consume on a daily basis. We manage to handle these transactions fairly well on our own despite our lack of omniscience. In some arenas, at least, the free market model works pretty well. It’s possible that health care isn’t one of them, but Rodger’s opening canard doesn’t provide any reason for thinking so.

Ironically, one of the leading arguments against free market health care is that consumers have too much information, causing adverse selection and the unraveling of insurance markets. That’s a challenging point! Alas, it’s not the sort you bother making when you start from the assumption that your opponents are stupid.

(It’s also telling that Rodgers’ example of uninformed, stupid decision-making was the election of George W. Bush, a decision that was political, not economic. In the political sphere people are free to make stupid choices because the personal cost of being wrong is virtually nil. This is a reason to be skeptical of further politicizing health care.)

But that’s just the first paragraph. After Rodgers unfairly dismisses free market arguments he goes on to say that people who oppose the public option are dupes of the insurance companies:

The insurance industry is massively funding the campaign against health care reform, especially reform that includes an option for publicly administered insurance. They want to keep making a lot of money, so they prefer to keep things the way they are. The industry is abetted by its mouthpieces on Fox News, talk radio, and in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Their teams of strategists are rolling out some rabid crusaders to try to stop the conversation, apparently encouraging them to use tactics as close to brute force as the law will allow (and then some).

This illogical outrage and outrageous behavior obviously didn’t spring up overnight, it’s been cultivated for years by political strategists and interest groups on the right. The rabid dogs know what they’re doing–they know their role, even if they can’t control themselves. If you sat these birthers and screamers and Glenn Beck fans down and asked them to explain how the universe is put together, the story you heard would be scary and wrong, but they would believe every word of it.

While it rests uneasily on an old foundation of philosophical principles, the right’s current ‘platform’ on health care is a twisted-up mess of distortions and opportunity-driven sound bites. It makes very little sense for an ordinary working person to adopt a stance against public health insurance–what exactly is so great about private health insurance?–but rational decision-making has nothing to do with this. People are committed to being on a team, and they will fight for the team.

It’s great sport to mock the fringe elements of one’s ideological opponents — and the conservative movement certainly deserves some mocking right now — but picking on the nutjobs is no substitute for engaging with actual arguments. And if Rodgers looked beyond FOX News he’d find that arguments do exist. Free market economists have a coherent perspective on health care that’s in fact deeply critical of the current system. And the reforms they suggest, such as expanding HSAs, shifting the tax exemption for health insurance from employers to consumers, and eliminating barriers to competition among states, are logical extensions of that perspective, not cover for the interests of insurance companies.

Does Rodgers consider those arguments? Or does he instead suggest that his opponents are a bunch of country rubes? If you guessed the latter, you’re correct!

The current debate in DC has focused on 1) a national public option for everyone or 2) state-by-state decisions on whether a public option is available. Neither of these approaches successfully take into account the reality that people are bitterly divided on the issue, and will stay that way. One answer to the dilemma might be to create a national public health insurance option, but give local communities the choice to opt in or out. Union County can vote in or out. Multnomah County, same choice. Equity can be ensured via the tax code.

It’s a foregone conclusion that the major urban areas will all opt in. Both coasts will be in. In parts of the country where the political divide is intense, communities will have their say; e.g. rural Georgia will probably be out, and Atlanta will opt in. With most cities in, the population base will be plenty large enough to ensure maximum bargaining power. And the conservative communities that are whipped into a frenzy can sit this one out.

I’m picking on Rodgers here, but only because his post exemplifies the tendency I’ve seen in many progressives to ignore the best arguments of their opponents, focus on the extremes, and assume that ordinary people who disagree with them are victims of their own ignorance. This is its own kind of tribalism and with that attitude it’s no wonder disagreement seems so intractable.

I’m not writing this post to defend any particular perspective on health care. I obviously lean to the libertarian side, but this isn’t an area in which I claim any expertise. All I’m suggesting to progressives is that if they want to win over skeptics like me, demonstrating that they’ve engaged with free market arguments would be a better place to start than insulting our intelligence.


6 thoughts on “The problem of progressive arrogance”

  1. You mention “expanding HSAs, shifting the tax exemption for health insurance from employers to consumers, and eliminating barriers to competition among states”. This is all great for folks with insurance – I assume you have it and are happy with it by the way – it does nothing for us 50 million – 16% of the population – who have no insurance at all.

  2. I am honestly interested to see what conservatives and libertarians who are trying in good faith to address the issue have to say. (Note the “in good faith.” Anybody claiming Democrats want “death panels” doesn’t count. They are just as horrible as the guy you’ve quoted here.) Just as I found the climate change article in your links for today intriguing because it actually suggests answers from a conservative/libertarian perspective…I’d want to know what conservatives and libertarians think should be done to solve the problems with the current healthcare system.

    I have to agree with Joe, though. It seems the suggestions you make aren’t any help for people who don’t have/can’t afford insurance….and thus are relegated to emergency rooms, at best….and poor health/death at worst.

  3. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this post, and I finally decided to add a response. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, and I think the specific example you’re citing brings up a larger and unfortunate pattern with people.

    Often, the most arrogant voices seem to be the loudest. They crowd out more tempered, thoughtful opinions. Even worse than that, they create and perpetuate stereotypes. How many people will bother researching free market economics after reading Rodgers’ article to determine the validity of his arguments? And how many people make blanket assumptions about an ideology based on the label attached to an arrogant speaker or writer?

    There’s not enough time in the day to look everything up, of course. I just wonder if remembering that arrogance can sometimes seduce people to believe false information (especially if the people are unconnected to the ideology a speaker is dismissing) is a start.

    Maybe offering a rebuttal with just a touch of humility helps, too. It certainly turns down the heat, allowing people to actually soak in the points and counterpoints rather than salivating at the spectacle of a fevered debate. That’s exactly what I think you’ve done with your post. It’s a post to help people think—even if it’s not strictly about the post’s subject matter.

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