Sort by

Conservative Hypocrisy on the Mandate

David Callahan

It is weird how vehemently conservatives have attacked the individual mandate -- and are still attacking it now, after their erstwhile hero, Justice Roberts, said it could stand.

The mandate is a quintessential conservative idea, which explains why it emerged from the Heritage Foundation. A central tenet of conservative thinking is that government -- and society broadly -- shouldn't encourage free loading or coddle free riders.

And, of course, cracking down on free riders is exactly the point of the mandate. Healthy people who don't buy health insurance cost all of us more money, one way or another. Either by driving up our insurance premiums, since there are fewer healthy people paying in to insurance pools, or by using emergency rooms and public systems for urgent care.

Why should the rest of us subsidize the healthcare of uninsured people who can at least afford to pay something for their own coverage? And why would conservatives object to forcing them to either buy insurance or pay a penalty? As Heritage's Robert Moffit wrote about the mandate in a 1994 brief:

An individual mandate for insurance, then, is not simply to assure other people protection from the ravages of a serious illness, however socially desirable that may be; it is also to protect ourselves. Such self protection is justified within the context of individual freedom; the precedent for this view can be traced to none other than John Stuart Mill.

The conservative logic of the mandate explains why it became central to Republicans alternatives to ClintonCare back in the 1990s and ended up in Mitt Romney's healthcare legislation.

In his statement attacking the Supreme Court ruling, Romney didn't specifically mention the mandate -- and obviously, he's in a tough spot on that particular point. Especially since RomneyCare, with its individual mandate, seems to be working pretty well up in Massachusetts.

I suppose none of the right's hypocrisy on the mandate should be all that surprising. As we have seen again and again, this is a movement with very fungible beliefs, which it will readily jettison for partisan or policy gains. Just as conservatives only care about deficits when they are out of power, or only care about state's rights when it advances their agenda, so too can the notion of individual responsibility -- which is central to the mandate -- be tossed aside if progressives happen to harness that value to a social insurance program or if there are points to be scored against a Democratic president.

A more generous reading of the conservative flip-flop on the mandate is that it's a reflection of rising populism on the right. Tea Party types are not sitting around wondering what Mills or Hayek might think of a given policy idea, and these are the people now driving the train in the Republican Party. Their knee jerk anti-government views aren't always -- or even often -- philosophically sound or consistent.

Even if the mandate weren't central to a big Democratic policy, you can bet it wouldn't be very popular with today's rank-and-file conservatives.

And so things go with American politics. The right keeps moving further right, and Democrats keep moving with them -- to the point that a Democratic president found himself relying on, and then, defending a conservative idea as part of his biggest domestic policy achievement.