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Opinion

Individual mandate in Obama's health care law: good for freedom, bad for free-riders

The Supreme Court begins hearings today on the constitutionality of President Obama's health care law, often called Obamacare. Critics say its 'individual mandate' threatens freedom. It actually protects it.

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Other markets – like the ones for broccoli or spinach, or the vast majority of markets for other products and services – don’t normally face free-ridership issues at the point of service. Nor does free-ridership result from “inactivity” in these other markets the way it does in the health-care market. These distinctions provide clear grounds for differentiating the mandated purchase of health insurance from the myriad other purchase options individuals have within other markets.

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Thus critics need not worry that the health-care mandate represents a “potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority” as articulated by the 11th Circuit Federal Court, which ruled the mandate unconstitutional in August 2011.

Should the Supreme Court rule the insurance mandate to be unconstitutional, the mandate’s opponents will hail its decision as a victory for both freedom and limited government. The opposite will be so.

The court, instead, will have ruled for the one-sided autonomy of free-riders and rejected the freedom of providers, taxpayers, and consumers, subjecting them all to what is essentially a form of stealing.

Providers will be legally required, not to mention under the influence of professional obligations going back to the Hippocratic Oath, to deliver services to the free-riders without knowing or often even being able to determine whether they will be compensated.

To have to work without compensation is a core characteristic of forced labor. The providers then will be forced to finagle third-party consumers and their insurers – innocent bystanders – to pay for the free-riders’ costs by charging them higher prices.

If this is a victory for freedom, it will be for a fraudulent anything-goes notion of freedom that is amoral.

And if this is a victory for limited government, it will be so only in the false sense of a government rendered so impotent as to be incapable of protecting its own citizens from free-riders.

John E. Schwarz is distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in New York, and professor emeritus of government and public policy at the University of Arizona. He is currently writing "Common Credo: How Both the Left and the Right Have Led America Astray," to be published next March by W.W. Norton.

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