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It Can Always Get Worse


You would have thought than Steven Landsburg’s argument couldn’t possibly get any worse. Alas, as his follow-up strawman burning indicates, he is unable to clear the extremely low bar set by his initial foray into the debate. He starts by repeating his most fundamental error:

Over the last week, we’ve heard a lot from the people who (with a hat tip to one Joker), I now call “contraceptive sponges” — people who want others to pay for their contraception because — well, just because they don’t want to pay for it themselves.

It’s just amazing that Landsburg continues to write about this subject without bothering to familiarize himself with the most basic facts about the subject so he could stop embarrassing himself. Anyway, Sandra Fluke is not asking anybody else to pay for anything. Students at Georgetown law are required to purchase medical insurance if they don’t have it already. She is not asking others to pay for their contraception “because they don’t want to pay for it themselves.” This fundamental error makes the points that follow from it a non-sequitur:

Th[argument that covering contraception is cheaper because insurance also has to cover childbirth, which is much more expensive] is might be true (though I haven’t seen any actual estimates of the number of childbirths prevented per dollar spent on contraceptive subsidies) but (and I am embarrassed to even have to point this out), so what? If we’re going to start making choices strictly on the basis of what’s cheapest, we should all stop eating.


First, it’s by no means clear that the externalities from childbirth are in fact on balance negative. Second, and more fundamentally, if you’re out to discourage childbirth, the best way to do it is to tax childbirth, not to subsidize contraception.

I…wow. First of all, the point of covering contraception is not to “discourage childbirth”; it’s to ensure that medical insurance covers basic medical expenses. More importantly, Landsburg’s entire attack on Fluke is premised on the idea that she’s asking “other people to buy her something.” This is not true directly because Fluke is, in fact, paying for insurance, and more broadly people who get insurance from employers are paying for it by getting medical insurance instead of wages as compensation. So the only argument available to Landsburg is that Fluke is indirectly “asking people to pay for contraception” because she’s getting a cross-subsidy from other insurance holders that don’t use contraception. This would still be a remarkably feeble argument, because it proves too much: it’s just an argument against the concept of insurance altogether. By Landsburg’s logic, people who expect their insurance to cover the medical care necessary to heal a broken leg are moochers asking other people to pay for it. People who use car insurance to repair the car are asking other people to pay for their repairs. People with fire insurance who file a claim to get compensation after their house burns down are just asking other people to pay them to get a new house, and so on. It’s a silly, self-refuting argument even granting Landsburg’s premise.

But it’s worse than this. As he remarkably fails to realize, if covering contraception is cheaper for the insurer, there’s no additional expense for anyone. There’s no subsidy, direct or indirect. Not only are Landsburg and Limbaugh not being asked to pay for anything, neither the insurance company nor other people getting the health care plan required by Georgetown Law. That he completely feels to grasp this obvious point and its implications and instead starts getting into irrelevant nonsense about how we can best discourage childbirth is incredible.

Both the original and follow-up arguments Landsburg makes are just jaw-dropping stuff. If it wasn’t for my previous familiarity with his punditry, I would have pegged them as a funny and vicious (if a little over-the-top) parody of libertarian economists, sort of a new Sokal hoax. Instead, we have someone making transparently dumb and ignorant — but sincere — arguments asserting that other people who are actually making rational arguments with some basic understanding of the issues involved are not fit to share the same public space and deserve some witless consideration of whether they are “sluts,” “prostitutes,” or “extortionists.” Without the attacks on Fluke Landsburg’s argument would be merely pathetic; with them, they’re utterly contemptible.

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