Monday, February 22, 2010

Permanent Political Football

While reading a seemingly-unrelated story in the New York Times about the Texas State Board of Education, I was struck by the parallels between special-interest lobbying that occurs with a mandatory school curriculum and special-interest lobbying that occurs with mandatory health insurance.

The February 14, 2010 New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article entitled "How Christian Were the Founders?" This article described in detail the ferocious political lobbying in Texas resulting from the fact that Texas has established a statewide curriculum guideline for all its schools. Hence special interest groups have a powerful incentive to have their point of view promulgated in this mandatory curriculum.

The NYT article focused primarily on the Religious Right, and their often-successful attempts to promote the theme that "America is a Christian nation" -- by which they mean that "the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts". This in turn has powerful implications for what they believe children should be taught about American history, the proper relationship between government and religion, and what they considered the dangerously flawed notion of "separation of church and state". And they have been successful in using the power of government to include their views within the textbooks in use throughout the state of Texas.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the various Religious Right theories of American history, the kind of lobbying they engage in is a completely predictable consequence of a government-mandated educational curriculum. In other jurisdictions, we might see hardcore environmentalists attempt to require school textbooks adopt a radical "green" perspective or leftists require teaching an anti-West, anti-capitalist curriculum.

Basically, the presence of a mandatory curriculum serves as a giant magnet for special interest groups seeking to have their particular viewpoint represented in the curriculum. It turns the educational curriculum into a permanent political football to fought over by the various interest groups.

Hence, there is a parallel with the lobbying that occurs under a system of mandatory health insurance. If everyone is required to purchase health insurance (as they are in Massachusetts), the government must necessarily determine what constitutes an "acceptable" package. This creates a giant magnet for special interests to have their particular pet benefit included in the mandatory package. In Massachusetts, residents must therefore purchase numerous benefits that they may neither need nor want, including in vitro fertilization, chiropractor services, alcoholism therapy, and hair prostheses -- raising costs for everyone to benefit the few with sufficient political clout.

Nor does the lobbying ever stop. As Michael Cannon noted in the August 27, 2009 Detroit News:
In the three years since Massachusetts enacted its individual mandate, providers successfully lobbied to require 16 specific types of coverage under the mandate: prescription drugs, preventive care, diabetes self-management, drug-abuse treatment, early intervention for autism, hospice care, hormone replacement therapy, non-in-vitro fertility services, orthotics, prosthetics, telemedicine, testicular cancer, lay midwives, nurses, nurse practitioners and pediatric specialists.

The Massachusetts Legislature is considering more than 70 additional requirements.
As with mandatory educational curricula, mandatory health insurance thus becomes a permanent political football for special interests to fight over.

Of course, the solution in both arenas is to eliminate the government mandate. Just as parents should be allowed to decide what kind of education their children should receive, consumers should be allowed to decide what sorts of health insurance they wish to purchase. The government should respect and protect these individuals' rights to make these decisions for themselves, rather than making that decision for them.

However, according to the February 18, 2010 New York Times story, "Obama to Offer Health Bill to Ease Impasse as Bipartisan Meeting Approaches", President Obama is still insisting on his plan of mandatory insurance as the basis for his upcoming health care "summit" with the Republicans.

His plan would thus turn health insurance into an unfair game of permanent political football, where the politically strong perpetually pummel ordinary Americans who lack sufficient lobbying pull. Unless Americans want to become the permanent tackling dummies for the special interest groups, they should remain firm in their current opposition to the President's plan and not let down their guard yet.