Public Goods and Individual Mandates

June 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

My son and his girlfriend arrived in Beijing ten days ago.  The got-here-safely e-mail ended with this:
was blown away by the pollution! I know people
talk about it all the time, but it really is crazy.

And it is.  Here’s a photo I grabbed from the Internet.

At about the same time, I came upon a this link to photos of my home town Pittsburgh in 1940.  Here are two of them.

Today in downtown Pittsburgh, the streetcars and overhead trolleys are gone.  So are the fedoras.  And so is the smoke.  

The air became cleaner in the years following the end of the War.  It didn’t become clean all by itself, and it didn’t become clean because of free-market forces.  It got clean because of government – legislation and regulation, including an individual mandate. 

The smoke was caused by the burning of coal, and while the steel mills accounted for some of the smoke, much of the it came from coal-burning furnaces in Pittsburghers’ houses.  If the city was to have cleaner air, the government would have to force people change the way they heated their homes.  And that is exactly what the law did. To create a public good – clean air – the law required individuals to purchase something – either non-polluting fuel (oil, gas, or smokeless coal) or smokeless equipment.* 

Initially, not everyone favored smoke control, but as Pittsburgh became cleaner and lost its “Smoky City” label, approval of the regulations increased, and there was a fairly rapid transition to gas heating.  By the 1950s, nobody longed for the unregulated air of 1940.  Smoke control was a great success.**  Of course, it may have helped that Pittsburgh did not have a major opposition party railing against this government takeover of home heating or claiming that smoke control was a jobs-killing assault on freedom.

* Enforcement focused not on individuals but distributors.  Truckers were forbidden from delivering the wrong kind of coal.

** For a fuller account of smoke control in Pittsburgh, see Joel A. Tarr and Bill C. Lamperes, Changing Fuel Use Behavior and Energy Transitions: The Pittsburgh Smoke Control Movement, 1940-1950: A Case Study in Historical Analogy. Journal of Social History , Vol. 14, No. 4, Special Issue on Applied History (Summer, 1981), pp. 561-588.


Anonymous said...

Prohibiting pollution is not the same as requiring a purchase. That is a logical fallacy. I live in Boston and I use the heat at most 5 days a year. Most of the time I just bundle up.
Furthermore, the quality of the purchase is regulated in health care (must cover certain things)but not in heating.
Finally, the healthcare requirement is *explicitly* designed as a cross subsidy (young/healthy subsidizing old/sick via larger pool). This is not the case for heat.
Nobody disagrees that the government can force individuals to have healthcare. This could easily have been done via the tax authority. The mandate is using a bastardized version of the commerce clause.

Jay Livingston said...

Anon, Thanks for the comment. You are right that the Constitutional issues may be different – as far as I know, the Pittsburgh law was not challenged in court. But the larger issue, the one that is similar between the ACA and smoke control, as I implied in my post, is that of a public good and individual freedom.

Most people in Pittsburgh heated with coal. Telling them they could no longer heat that way was, in effect, forcing them to buy a different heating method. It’s possible that some of them might have had your Spartan spirit. They could have chosen to live without heat or hot water (Remember, their coal furnaces fired the boilers that heated the water for washing their coal-darkened bodies and clothes. Do you also limit yourself to only five days per year of hot water?) So in effect, prohibiting pollution was the same as requiring a purchase. And if, like the emissions control devices on cars today, the heating mechanisms had to meet certain pollution standards, then the quality of the purchase was also regulated.

Anonymous said...

"So in effect, prohibiting pollution was the same as requiring a purchase."

But that is precisely the point! The fact that the outcome in effect is the same does *not* mean that from a legal perspective the issues are the same. As I stated above, if congress had used the taxing authority to achieve a mandate (or even a single payer system), the legal issues would not exist.
Furthermore, in many societies there is a difference between negative commandments (thou shall not use coal) and positive commandments (thou shall have health insurance). The former is always considered less onerous.
For example, 'first do no harm' is a clear statement of the difference between positive and negative injunctions. Similarly, the notion of a 'white lie' is a clear differentiation between a positive and a negative duty.

Jay Livingston said...

Anon, I agreed with you that the Constitutional/legal issues are different. Whether the ACA is Constitutional depends on whether SCOTUS (or at least five of its members) say it is. (Right now the betting at Intrade is 70% that the individual mandate will be unconstitutional. If I were betting, I’d lay the odds and sell, but that has nothing to do with my personal views of what the decision should be.)

I also agree that “you must” is usually more onerous than “you may not.” But when opting out isn’t really choice, the difference narrows. “You may not use coal,” is not much different from saying, “You must heat with something else,” since going without heat or hot water is not a real option. It’s like the auto insurance requirement. Yes, it’s possible to live without driving a car, and no doubt those laws would stand up to Constitutional challenges. But for many people, trying to get by without a car is not a realistic option.

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