Jackbooted government broccoli pushers small worry even if individual mandate is upheld

It’s one of my favorite protest signs of all time – a beautiful, shimmering ray of pure crystalline stupidity shining forth in a world long since corrupted by a pompous cabal of tweedy, know-it-all professors with the audacity to think that reason and intellect might somehow be our savior.

It shows a Soviet hammer and sickle crudely drawn next to the words, “Goverment, Keep Yore Hands of my Medicare! Don’t Steal From Medicare to support SOCIALIZED MEDICINE.”

I love this sign. I shouldn’t, because it represents everything that’s wrong with our country, and every time an American says “socialism” without knowing what it means, a North Korean throws up on his labor camp smock just a little bit.

But the sign is not just another piece of priceless Internet Americana. I contend that it’s actually a crystal-clear summation of a new wave of thinking in American politics: The attitude that government is always intrusive and never helpful, and that all the things government does to improve people’s lives somehow have nothing to do with the government but rather with magical libertarian fairy dust that drops from the sky every time Ronald Reagan cracks open a hippie’s skull in heaven.

So it is with the individual mandate written into the Affordable Care Act, and most conservatives’ revulsion toward it.

The individual mandate was introduced primarily to fix one serious problem: Free-ridership in the health care system. Right now, if you’re uninsured, you are essentially a free rider. Whatever right-wingers might tell you, refusing to purchase health care is not the same as refusing to purchase broccoli. If you refuse to purchase broccoli, the result is that you get no broccoli – ever. On the other hand, if you refuse to purchase health insurance, you’ll still likely get health care, but everyone else will be forced to pay for it, and you’ll continue to be an indispensible cog in the expensive, screwed-up, and unsustainable health care system that we currently enjoy.

Despite some Supreme Court justices’ warnings to the contrary, the government will never force you to purchase broccoli, because that would be stupid. There aren’t free riders in the broccoli market who refuse to buy broccoli and then, one day, suddenly suffer a potentially fatal broccoli deficiency that requires them to eat bushels full of extremely expensive broccoli at society’s expense.

But if you don’t have health insurance, there’s a good chance that you’ll one day end up in the emergency room, and someone else (i.e., not you) will pay for your health care services.

For some reason that I can’t begin to grasp, this is the Republican Party’s dream scenario in the Year of Our Lord 2012.

Now, I’m not a lawyer. If I were, I wouldn’t be wearing this shirt, nor would it be soaked tassels to tails in expired Jolly Good soda and two-day-old bathtub gin. So I can’t really speak with any authority on the Supreme Court case that will decide the fate of the individual mandate written into the health care reform law.

But most conservatives aren’t so much fixated on the abstruse details of the Supreme Court case: They object to the threat the individual mandate supposedly poses to our freedoms.

The argument goes something like this: “How dare you? You can’t make me buy health insurance! This ain’t Cuba. Obama is a damn [insert racially indelicate adjective] socialist! Now watch as I drive my ATV drunk down the railroad tracks while shooting rock salt at bears.”

But as many conservatives have eloquently argued, the flip side of freedom is responsibility. If you want to live in a libertarian utopia, you have to accept responsibility for your decisions.

In the absence of an individual mandate, the only way to make the health care system truly “fair” is to dump the uninsured out on the curb when they show up at the emergency room. You wanted freedom? Well, this is the price of freedom – a gaping hole in your head that won’t be fixed unless you pay in advance or agree up front to surrender a kidney.

Of course, conservatives know that won’t happen, because bleeding-heart liberals won’t allow it. So we’re stuck with either the status quo, in which people are free to be irresponsible and suck the system dry, or an individual mandate that demands we all live up to a social contract. Neither is quite free. The former forces hospitals and the insured to pay for the devil-may-care lifestyles of the uninsured, while the latter forces the uninsured to not act like teenagers. (That’s not a stab at people who truly can’t afford health insurance – after all, provisions are made for the poor under the health care reform law.)

Of course, the most ironic thing about this Supreme Court case is that conservatives originally came up with the idea for the individual mandate. Conservative economists hatched it as a response to liberals’ calls for universal coverage. Soon after, the ultra-right wing Heritage Foundation picked it up and ran with it, and both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich eventually came to embrace it. In fact, an individual mandate was part of the health care reform law Romney signed as Massachusetts governor.

Funny, right?

So why is it a bad idea now? Well, because Barack Obama is a socialist, and Newt Gingrich is not.


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