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Compulsion is a limited resource

CNN Marketwatch offers a glimpse of our paper-pushing future under ObamaCare:

If you thought nothing could be more tedious than filling out your tax forms, just wait until you try to apply for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s new exchanges.

The draft of the paper application is 15 to 21 pages, depending on whether someone is applying individually or for their family.

And the instructions for the application run no less than 61 pages. That’s nearly six times longer than the instructions for a green-card application. (There are also videos of the process.)

“If you like IRS forms, you’re going to love this one,” says Ken Hoagland, chairman of Restore America’s Voice, a conservative organization that advocates for the repeal of the health-care law. “These are the kinds of things that are going to drive people crazy.”

And, of course, neither the citizens trapped in this bureaucratic nightmare, nor the bureaucrats perched atop the maze, know how most of it works, assuming any great portion of it does work.

Completion of all this paperwork will require hours of homework, followed by perhaps an hour of scribbling, during which the commissars of ObamaCare will gather all sorts of dubiously relevant information about us, such as our voter registration status.  Fortunately, the government will spend millions more of our tax dollars hiring tens of thousands of “navigators” to assist us in filling out the paperwork.  (Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner reveals that California alone says it needs 21,000 of these “navigators,” and they’ll be paid $20-$48 per hour.  Just wait until they have their own public employee union!)

That should all add quite a bit to the annual cost of regulatory compliance, which has been estimated at $216 billion for the business sector, but closer to $2 trillion if the burden on individuals is included.  Computing a dollar value for the regulatory burden is one way of expressing the idea, not well understood by politicians, that compulsion is a limited resource, and so is the mutually exclusive resource of liberty.

There is only so much that people can be forced to do, particularly over the long term.  Higher levels of compulsion are easier to maintain during an emergency.  It’s easy to understand that people grappling with a great crisis will accept levels of authority they would find unacceptable during peaceful times.  That’s one reason the Left is keen on sustaining an atmosphere of manufactured crisis, and declaring various imperatives “the moral equivalent of war.”

We could even look at deficit spending from this perspective – it’s a form of control, granting the government a level of influence beyond what the people have agreed to finance through taxation.  This is acceptable during a time of existential crisis, such as a massive war, but we have come to accept it as a fact of daily life.  And when a moment of fiscal emergency arrives, the massive debt accumulated by irresponsible spending becomes a new motherlode of compulsion – the people are told they have no choice but to pay higher taxes to cover the government’s debts, even if they never approved of the spending in the first place, or weren’t even old enough to vote at the time.

The exercise of compulsive power drains away the resource of liberty.  Even the seemingly benign spreading of government benefits for “free” is directly compulsive, not just because it arms the deficit bomb, but because it provides an incentive to engage in whatever behavior will win the State’s lucrative favor.  This is the express purpose behind “green energy” subsidies – they’re supposed to “transform” America by making people choose subsidized, government-approved options, instead of the more cost-effective energy resources they naturally prefer.  If that preference did not exist, the subsidies wouldn’t be necessary.

Furthermore, those who don’t get to collect any given subsidy are being penalized.  Sometimes this is made immediately clear.  For example, some green-energy subsidies are funded by taxes and fees that essentially force “old-school” energy companies to finance their own competitors.

Throw in explicit restrictions and mandates, and the total level of compulsion exercised against citizens can be estimated.  It is the great delusion of the political class that this resource is inexhaustible – there’s no practical limit on how great the burden can become, provided it is increased slowly enough.  But that’s a political judgment, not an economic principle.  Compulsion can crowd out liberty at a painful cost to general prosperity, long before the pubic reacts with politically threatening anger – particularly since the overall amount of coercive force deployed against the populace can be dispersed unequally, placing heavier loads upon politically weak, outnumbered groups.  I would suggest this has already occurred.

Compulsive force has its uses, but we should regard it as an extremely toxic resource that must be handled carefully.  Instead, it is too commonly viewed as a bottomless well of riches.  A lot of people think no issue has been properly addressed until the government steps in.  They are listening too readily to promises of benevolent intent.  Good intentions do not change the nature of the means used by the State to obtain the “free” benefits it dispenses.

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