The Health-Care Reform Act: Que Paso?

What has this gargantuan statute wrought? To this question, there can be only one answer: Nobody knows.

I am being quite serious: no single human being knows ― no one can know ― what provisions the statute’s more than 2,000 pages contain. Even if someone had the power to read and remember everything in this massive legislative enactment, he would still harbor a multitude of uncertainties about: how the courts will interpret the law’s general provisions; how the various administrative agencies will flesh out the statute with new regulations; the precise way in which each provision will be implemented; how, when, and in what amounts funds will be made available for carrying out the law’s many stipulated actions; how much resistance the law will meet, both in the courts and among the public, and how these conflicts will be resolved; and countless other matters of critical importance to those directly and indirectly affected by the massive statute ― which is to say, virtually everybody in the United States and a considerable number of people elsewhere, as well.

Already, however, we can say a few things with certainty. One is that this statute, like any other of comparable size, amounts to a Christmas tree for politically favored interests. For months, maybe for years, people will be discovering little provisions tucked into the bill, each of which provides some sort of privilege, protection, subsidy, or other benefit to a particular firm, industry, profession, or other beneficiary. Anyone who has ever toiled through the pages of statutes of comparable length and complexity, as I have for a number of defense authorization and appropriation acts, knows that each such law comprises a host of special-interest provisions. If you would care to see some appalling examples laid bare, read chapters 7 and 8 of my book Depression, War, and Cold War or, if you cannot gain access to this book, see the original version of chapter 7, which was published in the Cato Journal in 1988.

We also know that this statute will not be the end of the story of health-care politics in this country. It is, for the current phase, only the end of the beginning. The ink will scarcely be dry in the revised U.S. Code when political factions will undertake to alter or to overturn the provisions just enacted. Thus, within the act’s great expanse, hundreds of little sub-conflicts will rage, as competing interests struggle for control of the state’s coercive power in their area of contention. Politics, in general, is an endless struggle, and the politics of the federal government’s health-care intervention is no exception. Stay tuned.

Finally, because health-care-related economic activity is such a huge part of the overall economy, what happens in this sector will have significant consequences for the operation of other sectors. For example, when Obamacare turns out to be much more costly than the government has claimed it will be, the government’s demand for loanable funds will be greatly increased, with far-reaching effects on interest rates, investment spending, economic growth, and even the U.S. Treasury’s creditworthiness. It is not inconceivable that the burden of supporting this health-care monstrosity will prove to be the (load of) straw that breaks the back of the government camel in the credit markets, where the U.S. Treasury has long been able to borrow the greatest amounts at the lowest rates of interest because its bonds were considered virtually riskless. Indeed, that status as the lowest-risk borrower seems already to be approaching the breaking point, even before the new health-care legislation has taken effect. Implementation of this law can only worsen the Treasury’s plight.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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