When I explain the antitrust laws to my Industrial Organization students, I begin with the Fable of the Martian.  Suppose you’re driving 66 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone with a fresh-off-the-spaceship Martian passenger.  No one in sight is going less than 60 mph.  The Martian asks for an explanation.  “Why is everyone breaking the rule?  Doesn’t anyone ever get in trouble?” 

If you’re wise, your approximate answer will be, “People get in trouble all the time.  However, it has little to do with the posted speed limit.  The punishment primarily depends on how fast the other motorists are going, the ratio of motorists to police cars on the road, and dumb luck.”  The moral of the Fable: It’s a mistake to focus on the letter of the law; it’s a lot more useful to ask how the laws work in practice.

The more I hear wonks explain the details of the Senate health care bill, the more I keep thinking about the Fable of the Martian.  Ezra Klein, for example, seems to know a lot more about pending legislation than I would ever bother to learn.  But if you take the Fable of the Martian seriously, his replies to critics seem beside the point.

Case in point: I assume that when Ezra assures us that “[T]he bill isn’t funded primarily by taxes. It’s funded primarily by changes to Medicare,” he is accurately stating the letter of law.  But it is reasonable to believe that policy will work this way in practice?  Medicare and Medicaid cuts have already been repeatedly passed – and repeatedly postponed.   Why should we expect things to be any different this time around? 

Bottom line: Critics may misunderstand the letter of the Senate bill.  In fact, at 2000+ pages (and almost 400 pages of amendments), there probably isn’t a person alive who knows what the whole thing says.  This doesn’t mean that critics misunderstand the actual consequences of passing the bill.  Textual exegesis is no substitute for public choice.