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There was a time in America when a vast majority of the trains were powered by coal. The engines were rather simple, essentially giant steam engines with a boiler attached. The boiler was fed by regularly shoveling coal into them. The person on the train who shoveled the coal was known as a “boilermaker.’ Now of course the only trains in the US powered by coal are the few vintage scenic trains that we take rides on for pleasure. Most trains are either powered by gigantic diesel engines or are electric trains.

Famously, for those rail lines that operate with union workers (there is even an International Brotherhood of Boilermakers today), some still employ boilermakers. Yes, that’s right, you may find yourself paying a fare on an electric train one day and part of that fare will be used to pay for a “featherbedded” boilermaker.

It’s not just silly, but pernicious. Long since the technology evolved to save money and resources by replacing coal with diesel and electricity (coal powered) we are still paying people to shovel coal. Trains are more expensive than they would otherwise be. And we lose the output that a skilled worker could be producing somewhere else, among other problems.

Now consider the case of the health insurance mandate. Without debating the economics here, which are worth debating, let me offer up another reason why the burden of proof on the coercionists ought to be higher, and it rarely is. It is that it is very hard to undo unncessary legacy legislation. And this is not a small thing. Sure there are stupid laws on the books in every state such as the one making it illegal to walk a cat without it having tail-lights affixed (I heard that once, it is surely apocryphal, but you all know laws like this), but there are legacy laws that are costly and unnecessary. So, imagine for the time being that the insurance market evolves to a place where having uninsured people “free-ride” on medical care does not impose undue costs on other people, would we still support a mandate? This is not idle speculating. Technology can and does solve problems.

For example, suppose you had a mandate in the American Midwest that said that all farmers had to buy “ungulate insurance.” Why? Because ungulates eat our crops, and since there is no easy way to keep ’em out (and of course farmers are too dumb to do something about it) if an uninsured farmer loses his crop, he will starve, and therefore the rest of us who had ungulate insurance will have to feed him. ¬†Of course, you know that barbed wire came along in the 19th century and effectively eliminated the fears that wild ungulates will trample your crops. So even if there were good reason to support an ungulate insurance mandate in 1850, would that reason stand today? And how many of you believe that if the health insurance mandate sticks around today that it would ever be eliminated in the future?

If you believe that then I have an island to sell you. And to be honest, the Progressives have been disappointing here. They rightfully are skeptical of big business when it comes to allowing people to freely make choices. But the big insurers have already been paid off in order to go along with the ACA, and if technologies evolved such that buying health insurance in America was not so important, do you think they would stand idly by as competition and technology ate away their profits? Seriously. Imagine if transportation became so quick and easy, and that medical care could be delivered remotely and cheaply, that almost any medical need I could have could easily be taken care of online or by a cheap flight to a cheap destination to get even the most incredible medicine delivered (this is not unthinkable, it already happens). Would you still believe we need a health insurance mandate? Do you think it would ever be repealed?

As long as the default view of the world for people is that “government is good and necessary” we will find ourselves getting worse government. If it were the case that folks were appropriately skeptical of empowering anyone with coercive powers, it might be the case that such power would be wielded more wisely. Of course, our founders understood this, but few adults are aware of this – they don’t teach Western Civilization anymore. How many kids actually know the Federalist Papers exist, much less read any part of them?

8 Responses to “The Boilermaker Mandate”

  1. J Storrs Hall says:

    Boilerman, not boilermaker. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fireman_(steam_engine)

  2. chuck martel says:

    Actually, the fellow shoveling coal into the locomotive’s boiler was called a “fireman”. Boilermakers build and repair, even today, boilers, usually the large ones used in electrical generating plants.

    Moving on, we’ve got to get away from this worship of the men that cobbled together the constitution and the document itself. It was designed and debated by men with personal incentives unrelated to any cosmic sense of justice. There’s really no proof of a correlation between the economic success of the country and the existence of the constitution. Other countries have found economic success with very different forms of government. Plopping down a bunch of hard-working Protestants in a place sparsely inhabited by neolithics is almost guaranteed to result in general prosperity, except for the natives, as was the case even before 1789 and earlier as the colony of a monarchy. The constitution failed to prevent, and, in reality, perhaps was the justification for, a national bloodbath just a few years after its adoption. Any form of government is destined to be infiltrated by sociopaths, regardless of its framework.

  3. Rod says:

    Don’t forget brakemen, who used to ride in the caboose, which had to be unhitched in order to offload cars onto a siding. Get those kerosene lanterns ready, boys!

    Actually, modern railroads are profitable in the freight business. They carry lots of intermodal freight that rolls right off the flatcar.

  4. chuck martel says:

    We still have some serious featherbedding issues, pharmacists, for instance. Why do we need somebody with a college degree to take a prescription out of my hand, read it, and then walk over to a shelf and pick up a bottle and then hand it me? The three highest paid employees of Hennepin County in Minnesota are pharmacists. A similar situation exists with librarians, who don’t write, edit, print or bind books, just order them and organize them on shelves, something like supermarket staff. Yet there aren’t any bachelor programs for library “science”, to be a librarian one must have a master’s degree and almost all librarians are employed by public libraries at generous salaries. It’s a scandal.

  5. Harry says:

    Let’s settle this. A boilermaker is a mug of Rolling Rock charged with a shotglass of Ten High bourbon, downed by a fireman. This is one of the things you learn when you get a liberal education.

    Happy Easter and Passover, everyone!

  6. Harry says:

    Chuck gets the April 1 gold plate award.

  7. It is sort of a dialectic process, but you don’t get laws regulating something until it has peaked, at which point, its demise or eclipse begins from a new direction. (Laws restricting the new really just protect the old, of course.) The Interstate Commerce Commission regulated railroads just as automobiles were being invented. The ICC included trucking when aviation was just blossoming. The automobile itself is just a superior carriage (though horseless, yet rated in horsepower) needing paved roads when electronic telecommunications and aviation both promised better alternatives.

    So far, no laws regulate who can be a computer programmer or what a computer actually is. Rue the day that this comes.

  8. jb says:

    Except for bloggers, regulate the bloggers by all means…

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