Government Isn’t the Solution

If US presidents have accumulated genuinely terrifying powers, such as the authority to execute American citizens without trial, it’s in part because they built on lesser powers that have accumulated over time in the Oval Office and in Washington generally. To roll back the powers that everyone agrees are scary, we also need to roll back those that some believe are appropriate. And that means changing how we think about achieving our policy objectives.

There’s no shortage of policy goals we could use as an example, but let’s take increasing access to birth control among low-income women. If you can’t relate because you don’t think that this goal is desirable, don’t worry, this same reasoning could apply to almost any other objective.

Currently, the most commonly-advocated way to promote access to low-cost birth control seems to be enacting a law; for example, one to provide direct subsidies or to oblige health insurers to cover it. The goal is achieved by compelling third parties to assist women in obtaining their pills, IUDs, etc. An alternative approach, one that’s perhaps less-commonly touted, is to support groups, such as Planned Parenthood, that provide birth control to women in need.

Which alternative is better?

On the one hand, with the government approach it’s inevitable that some (for example, religious conservatives) will be forced to support the goal against their will. Conversely, the only people who support a voluntary system are those who choose to do so.

A frequent counter-argument is that only the government can guarantee results: a law creates a mechanism to deliver birth control and funds it with tax dollars, thereby making access permanent. Conversely, a voluntary system only works if there are enough people willing to participate. What if Planned Parenthood can’t find enough donors or staff? Any why should it spend resources on getting supporters when it could devote them to helping women? Those are valid points, but in practice they may mean less than we think.

Government policies are not carved in stone; they remain in place until those in power change them. Laws, especially those on controversial issues, are adopted only if enough voters support them that politicians have an incentive to push them through. If that support turns to opposition, it is all but guaranteed that the law will be amended or repealed. So the “guarantee” provided by a government system is an illusion; it exists only as long as popular support remains intact.

The kind of society that would vote for laws providing low-cost access to birth control is exactly the kind of society in which an organization like Planned Parenthood can thrive: if large numbers of people are willing to support such laws, at least some of them would also be willing to provide time and money to help promote that organization’s goals.

You might say to yourself, “OK, but Planned Parenthood still can’t guarantee that it will always have the resources it needs, whereas the government can.” Well, not quite, because forcing people to support a goal they don’t believe in has unintended consequences. Those who oppose promoting access to birth control might passively accept the existence of Planned Parenthood if they have nothing to do with its activities. But forcing them to fund a system they reject turns them into active participants against their will. And so passive acceptance can easily become active opposition, as they fight to repeal the law and, once they succeed, remain vigilant to ensure that it remains dead. As a result, birth control advocates are forced to devote considerable resources to fighting political battles to get their policy adopted and then keeping it in place. If they fail, the system is lost and the “guarantee” is exposed as a mirage.

Incidentally, many more people are needed to achieve a political result than to maintain a viable organization: even if only 5% of Americans supported Planned Parenthood’s goals, it would take less than $7 a month from each of them to fund the organization’s entire budget. No government program could ever survive in the face of serious opposition with only 5% support, but a voluntary program can as long as there’s a consensus that the government should not interfere.

A voluntary approach depoliticizes the entire project: those who support it can do so, while those who don’t are left alone. It frees people from endlessly re-litigating costly political battles. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it provides no less of a guarantee of continuity than does a government approach (in fact, since much smaller numbers are needed to support it, its guarantee may be even stronger). Best of all, it removes power from politicians and gives it back to individuals. And a world in which we agree that the state shouldn’t be in the business of funding IUDs is probably one in which it would never even occur to anyone that it could have the power to detain people without trial, to engage in universal surveillance, or to kill people without trial.

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