Feature:Opinion

No to broccoli mandate, yes to health insurance mandate?

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Ryan Young
Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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      Ryan Young

      Ryan Young is the 2009-2010 Warren Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His writings communicate ideas from economics and classical liberal political theory in layman’s terms. His articles apply the economic way of thinking to issues from airplane baggage restrictions to fiscal stimulus to salary caps in baseball. He has been published in Politico, Investor’s Business Daily, Real Clear Markets, and other outlets. He also writes the popular “Regulation of the Day” feature for Open Market, CEI’s staff blog.

      Ryan holds an M.A. in economics from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a B.A. in history from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He was previously Fellow in Regulatory Studies at CEI, and worked in the Cato Institute’s government affairs department.

The results of a Reason-Rupe poll that was released on Monday are more interesting than the pollsters may have intended. Two of the questions they asked rely on the same basic principle: whether or not the government should be able to force you to purchase a certain product. The answers were wildly different.

In one question, the mandatory product was broccoli. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said this would be unconstitutional. Eight percent said it would be constitutional, and five percent didn’t know.

In the other question, the mandatory product was health insurance. Sixty-two percent said this would be unconstitutional. Thirty percent said it would be constitutional, and eight percent didn’t know.

That’s a 25-percent difference in how many people thought the different product mandates were unconstitutional, even though the principle at hand — the power to mandate — is exactly the same. Weird, huh?

There are many ways to interpret this. One is that a lot of the respondents have better things to do with their lives than study public policy, so they simply aren’t aware of the basic principle at hand. Most people prefer to spend their time on their careers, kids, hobbies, you name it. Economists call this rational ignorance. People aren’t stupid about politics because they’re stupid, they’re stupid about politics because they’re smart. People know how to prioritize their time.

Two other factors are what psychologists call priming, and the ugly reality of political partisanship. The health insurance mandate is at the heart of a headline-dominating Supreme Court case, while the broccoli mandate languishes in obscurity. Insurance is on the brain, and a certain delicious vegetable is not. Or in psychology lingo, health insurance is primed. Broccoli isn’t. That should explain some of the difference.

But it doesn’t explain the direction of the difference. Even people who are rationally ignorant have probably heard about the health insurance mandate debate on the TV or the Internet. It’s everywhere, so most people have formed some opinion on it. Ninety-two percent have, to put a number on it. But opinion-forming takes time and effort. It’s a lot easier to just take the same position as one’s preferred political party.

That would explain why the 25-point swing favors the health insurance mandate being constitutional, instead of moving more against it. The Red Team opposes it, so its partisans mostly remain against it. The Blue Team favors it, so most of their partisans will change their broccoli mandate-no vote to health insurance mandate-yes. For partisans on both sides, this mental shortcut sure beats thinking about it.

But the GOP — thankfully — commands far less than 62 percent of the vote. Only 28 percent of the Reason-Rupe poll respondents self-identified as Republicans. That leaves independents, who made up 37 percent of respondents, to make up most of the gap. They’re a fairly polyglot bunch. Some are libertarians, some are centrists. Others are so far to the right or the left that they outflank their natural party, and reject it. In other words, independents occupy almost every point of the liberal-illiberal spectrum. But by and large, they seem to be skeptical of the health insurance mandate.

Public opinion has precisely nothing to do with whether a policy is a good idea or not; anyone who thinks otherwise would do well to read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” But since I think that government should not have the power to mandate that people buy certain products — think of the lobbying and rent-seeking by companies that stand to benefit! — it is heartening that the majority of Americans think the same way as I do about broccoli. And, to a lesser extent, health insurance.

More importantly, we’ll soon find out how the Supreme Court polls on the broccoli mandate issue. Er, health insurance mandate. Same principle.

Ryan Young is a fellow in regulatory studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.