Brief note: when the city you live in requires you to shovel the sidewalk around your home, and leaves open the possibility of fining you for not shoveling, that’s an individual mandate for shoveling. When the city does it for you in exchange for your tax money, that’s single-payer shoveling.

Both have failure modes similar to the health-insurance case. In the individual-mandate case, the city might set the fine too low, such that people have an incentive to shirk their duty. But there’s a social aspect to the shoveling mandate that might be missing in the insurance case: everyone can see that you haven’t shoveled. As for single-payer shoveling: maybe the city would do a poor job of it.

In Cambridge, anyway, the results of the mandate are quite poor. “America’s Walking City” is a really poor place to walk during the winter. Me, I’d love some single-payer shoveling here.

Then, of course, there’s my longstanding gripe about how we choose to account for expenses like these. Charge all Americans taxes to fund the Department of Defense: that’s on the Federal budget, hence contributes to the deficit. Instead require all Americans to purchase a “self-defense package” from a private Defense Provider of their choice, while requiring that the self-defense package provide certain minimum safeguards, such as fighter jets: that’s not on the budget (you’re buying it on the private market, after all), so it doesn’t contribute to the deficit. You can see our way out of all debt concerns: don’t charge Americans taxes; just require them to buy things.

Likewise, Cambridge isn’t charging us taxes, with which it will hire men to shovel our sidewalks. Instead it’s shifting that burden onto us. So when you wake up at 5am to shovel your sidewalk, because you need to get it done before you take your kids to school, that doesn’t show up on the books, even though it deducts from your time, and even though your time is worth some money.

Finally: if the city did this for me, it could benefit from economies of scale. Rather than 45,000 or so households each buying a shovel, the city could buy a much smaller number of industrial-strength snowblowers.

Here’s a compromise: the city continues to require us to do it ourselves, but it sets up libraries for capital goods. The library that’s a few hundred feet from my apartment would open its doors early in the morning on the day of a snowstorm and allow one person from each building to rent a snowblower for a few hours. Seems silly to take this approach: it requires the city to spend money on more capital goods for its citizens than if the city just took care of the job itself. But there’s clearly something motivating the city, at present, to require that we all remove our own snow, and this plan allows them to continue that.