By James Kwak
Mark Thoma makes an important point about the “individual mandate” that applies equally well to health care and to Social Security:
“I don’t see anything wrong with asking people to pay the expected value of their health care — a mandate to get insurance to cover the catastrophic things that society would cover in any case — to avoid this type of gaming of the system. Yes, it’s true that many healthy people will pay, remain healthy, and seem to get nothing. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. They have insurance whether they pay for it or not. Society will not let them die of a standard, treatable illness so insurance services are present. In fact, it’s the knowledge that society is providing these services that motivates many people to take a chance and go without.”
This is the relatively common argument that, since people already have guaranteed access to a basic level of emergency care, they should have to pay for it.
There’s a slightly different point in there that I emphasized above and that I want to focus on. Health insurance, like any kind of insurance, can be framed after the fact as redistribution. You pay health insurance premiums, you stay healthy, and therefore you “lose”—your money goes to pay for other people’s losses. But this is true of any kind of insurance. It’s equally true of homeowner’s insurance: if your house doesn’t burn down, you are the victim of redistribution from you to the people whose houses do burn down.
The other way to think of insurance is, well, as insurance. We want and value insurance in the current period, before we know if we’ll be “winners” or “losers” in the future period. The insurance itself has value to us. In fact, whenever you buy insurance, you are hoping that you will end up as a loser.
The framing of the health care individual mandate as a transfer from the healthy to the sick is the exact same as the framing of tax-funded social insurance programs as a transfer from the rich to the poor. At the time you enter the system, you probably don’t know which category you will fall into. You might have some knowledge of the probabilities, but you could turn out to be very wrong: there are plenty of people who are healthy in their twenties but get very sick later. In either case, the framing as redistribution and the focus on winners and losers is a way of making something that all people value—protection from risk, backed by the federal government’s balance sheet—seem like a from of zero-sum redistribution brokered by that evil, meddling federal government.