Collective Action Without Big Government

During his second inaugural speech, Obama called for more “collective action” on the part of the American people, and in the process, knocked down a straw man by which he implied that those who disagree with him cling to a theory of individual action that is unrealistic. Everybody understands the issue is not between collective vs. individual action – we live in an interdependent society – but that the choice is between decen-tralized vs. centralized regulation of our collective activities.

An example of collective action that challenges Obama’s vision of centralized govern-ment is the creation of the Freelancers Insurance Company in 2008 by Sara Horowitz. Companies generally do not offer health insurance to freelance contractors because they’re temporary workers, so after organizing the workers and making the usual de-mands on companies without success, Horowitz decided to create her own private for-profit insurance company.

The FIC lost money in its first year of operation, but turned a profit starting in its second year. And today, the company consists of 25,000 subscribers acting, dare I say, collec-tively, to share the risk of large, unpredictable healthcare expenses. The creation of the FIC represents community organizing at its decentralized and entrepreneurial best. And as Horowitz herself is a liberal and union activist, the example is unexpected – who would have guessed?

Contrary to Obama’s vision of centralized healthcare (control over 315 million people), risk can be shared with as few as 25,000 subscribers, and a number of such insurance companies operating in a competitive market would provide healthcare to subscribers more efficiently than anything provided under the control of a central authority. The FIC example not only raises questions about the wisdom of centralized federal or state control over healthcare specifically, but also contradicts Obama’s general formulation that equates collective action with centralized government.

Horowitz’s approach also contrasts sharply with the thinking of the Russian government. As the Washington Post reports, there has been an upsurge in volunteer activity in Russia over the past year or so, and no surprise, such decentralized action does not sit well with the authoritarian impulses of the Russian government. It appears that Russia’s parlia-ment has even introduced legislation to regulate volunteer activity. Evidently, the politi-cians want to be sure that volunteer activity “conforms to the government’s priorities,” which of course would destroy the effectiveness of volunteerism.

The U.S. is not Russia, but really, the liberals’ healthcare dream is the eventual creation of a single-payer system run by the federal government, holding the entire population under its thumb. If this dream is ever achieved, we can forget about collective activity of the sort illustrated by Horowitz and the FIC. And at that point, the difference between us and Russia may not be so great after all.

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