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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Importance Of Making Everything Easier

Why universal access is good and means testing is terrible.

There is a debate right now among the 2020 candidates about whether and how to provide “free college.” Peter Buttigieg, the much-hyped mayor of South Bend, Indiana, says that public college tuition should be free only for those whose families earn under a certain income threshold. He has criticized those who believe in free college “for all,” regardless of family income, saying that this would be a handout to the children of millionaires and billionaires. My colleague Sparky Abraham has written an excellent essay on why “free college for all” is so important and what Buttigieg doesn’t understand. Of course, Buttigieg is just plain wrong on the math: There’s no reason free college needs to be a “handout” to the rich, if free college is funded through progressive taxation. But Sparky also shows some less-discussed problems with “income-based” free college schemes: They’re more complicated and require subjecting poor people to humiliating bureaucratic requirements. 

The problem with having “free X for the poor,” and only for the poor, is that in practice you need to have an apparatus to determine who counts as poor. You have to set a standard for how much people can have before they become ineligible, and then you need a way of reliably assessing that eligibility. This is difficult, and it means that no matter what, a “means tested” program is going to make accessing a given service more of a headache for poor people (who must fill out forms and prove eligibility) than it is for rich people (who can just hand over money and get it). Weirdly, even though “what it looks like in practice” should be central to discussions about means testing, advocate of means-tested programs seem frequently to ignore what the lived experience of constantly having to be means-tested is like. (Actually, advocates for many kinds of policy changes ignore what enforcement looks like on the ground, which is why France has debates about “banning” burkas when it is really debating “whether or not to have cops drag Muslim women away for their choice of swimsuit,” and Americans debate “legalizing” drugs rather than “whether or not to cage people for what they put in their mouths.”)

So, one good reason to provide free college to all is that it eliminates the need to check whether a person “deserves” or is “entitled” to free college. We know in advance that they’re entitled to it, because they’re a person. This certainly cuts down on paperwork. And that makes people’s lives better: If public high schools were means-tested, and there was a standard tuition fee, but you could have it waived if you met a series of requirements, it would not seem more fair or egalitarian. Currently, we do something strange where even though public schools are free, public school lunches are not, meaning that you have to apply to eat lunch for free or at a discount and have your income reviewed by the school district before they will give your child so much as a hot dog or a plate of baked beans. Predictably, this has led to the ugly widespread phenomenon of “school lunch debt.” This is not the case everywhere: Since 1948, Finland has just given children lunch, just as it gives them schoolbooks and instruction and playgrounds, which makes complete sense if you think of lunch as just as important a part of the school day.

Yes, there is a “fairness” element to universal giveaways like this, in that they treat everyone as equal. But it also just makes everybody’s life easier. As Sparky notes, we could pay for public parks by charging admission and offering income-based tax credits for park admission to anyone below a certain threshold. But isn’t it nicer when anyone can just walk in the park? I have written before about what an incredible mental relief it is not to have to think about money. The “commons” are wonderful: places where you can go without buying anything or paying for access. Public libraries, public beaches, public parks, public schools: They are held in common and everyone can use them as much as they please.

The leftist vision for how institutions should operate frequently involves taking money out of the picture, not just because we find it grubby but because it gets in the way of what we really want out of life. This is important to understanding the left vision for how healthcare ought to operate. Why is Medicare For All so important to us? In part because every other scheme makes your experience of healthcare much more complicated! We want you to be able to go to the doctor and not have to think about money. We don’t want you to have to think about premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. You should just be thinking about your health. And this isn’t utopian. In countries that pay for health services using taxes, when you want to go to the doctor you just go, get treated, and leave. As my U.K.-based colleague Aisling McCrea has noted, this is liberatory: It just makes you feel far more free, it makes life easier. (The downside, Aisling notes, is that you feel less grown up: “American: when I need a doctor I fill in forms A29-B0072, call the provider four times, and set up a payment plan with my accountant. [UK]: I go to the doctor and she makes me better. then I buy a Twix.” Descriptions like this from Europeans sound like they live in a children’s book about how a town operates.) 

One of the big criticisms of “Medicare for All” is that it “eliminates private insurance.” Thank God! I hate having to deal with insurance. I just want to deal with a doctor! Nobody likes having to have insurance. Saying that it “eliminates private insurance” is like saying that having free college “eliminates your school loan providers.” And the people trying to tell you that you love your insurance and don’t want to lose it are like people in that scenario telling you that because you’ve found a financing provider that’s kind of better than the others, the whole financing structure makes sense and you like. But we need to ask simple questions like: Does this really make sense as a system? Can’t we do better? Is this amount of paperwork really required?

The programs leftists advocate today we advocate partly because of our distaste for bureaucracy. We think about your experience: Going to the doctor should be as simple as possible. Going to college should involve registering for classes, then going and taking them. (Even applying for college should probably just consist of proving that you can meet the basic requirements to do the work and then going into a lottery system.) Remember Kamala Harris’ student debt plan? It gave $20,000 in debt forgiveness to anyone who was a Pell Grant recipient who started a business in a disadvantaged community and kept it afloat for three years. We leftists made fun of this. How about just using public funds to open schools and then letting people go to those schools? Let’s make life simple. Let’s make people free.

So to understand why the left is pushing so hard for universal free college and universal free health care, it helps to understand that we do not just want “free stuff.” After all, we are fully aware that these plans are financed through taxation, that they have costs. What we are concerned with, first and foremost, is people’s real-world experiences: Is going to college or the doctor a process that involves a lot of having to think about money, or does it instead involve thinking about your education and your health? We want everyone to be able to afford the service, yes, but even a means-tested program that covered everyone isn’t good enough, because of the test. The test adds bureaucracy, bureaucracy adds misery. The beauty of the commons is that you get it without having to prove anything. We serve you lunch because lunch is a part of school and education is a right. The doctor treats you because you are a person and you are sick, and not because you are “in their network.” (Dare to imagine a world where this phrase no longer exists!) We leftists are not just trying to create a world that is fair on paper—where all the numbers are optimized for maximization of distributional justice—but that is fair in practice, that is, in the experiences people actually have in the lives they actually live. Free college and free healthcare exist elsewhere, so we know that they are not regressive, they are not unaffordable, and are not utopian. And they can make life easier for all of us. In a difficult and complicated world, that is something everyone should care about.

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