Can Congress Force You to Be Healthy?

Doctor patient police The individualmandateLaw professor Jason Mazzone asks this question in a recent NY Times op-ed piece. His remarks were prompted by the recent Virginia ruling on the health care law’s individual mandate provision, the requirement that everyone must either be insured or pay a penalty.

To ask if health care legislation forces you to be healthy is misleading. Neither the government, the medical profession, or nor anyone else should force you to be healthy. A civilized nation, however, should make affordable health care available to all its citizens. These two are not the same thing.

Be personally responsible for your health or else

Governments want people to be healthy because this creates a productive workforce. Governments should support policies that create healthy environments in which its citizens can live and work. But no one wants Congress to force people to be healthy. What we want is not to go bankrupt when we get sick. We’re all going to die, and most of us will get sick or be in an accident before we die. We shouldn’t have to die prematurely simply because we can’t afford insurance.

If you’re going to argue against a government requirement of universal health insurance (and of course insurance would be unaffordable if only the sick opted in), then you’re going to have to make a moral judgment about those who get sick and are uninsured. If you’re against universal coverage, then you have to regard those who can’t afford health care as less deserving. What better way to believe people are undeserving than to claim they didn’t take personal responsibility for their health. It’s a short reach from opposing universal health care to blaming the victim.

Can Congress force you to join a gym?

Mazzone’s editorial gives two examples of Supreme Court rulings that denied Congress the right to regulate non-economic behavior: Owning guns and allowing female victims of violence to sue their attackers. (emphasis added)

[T]he [Supreme] court has never confronted a federal statute that forces people to engage in some action like this [purchase health insurance]. The conservative justices in particular will no doubt wonder what else Congress can make Americans do if it can make us buy health insurance. Can Congress tell us to join a gym because fit people have fewer chronic diseases? Can Congress direct us to purchase a new Chrysler to help Detroit get back on its feet?

This is both a red herring (appeal to fear) and a slippery slope argument. Unfortunately, I can readily understand why the argument has a huge emotional appeal to much of the American public.

Yes, we want affordable health care. No, we don’t want the government interfering in our personal lives. Don’t get emotionally manipulated into believing we can’t have the first without the second.

Related links:
Healthy lifestyles serve political interests
The politics behind personal responsibility for health
Civil disobedience and the individual mandate
Life expectancy of the rich and the poor

Resources:

Image source: The Rag Blog

Jason Mazzone, Can Congress Force You to Be Healthy?, The New York Times, December 16, 2010

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One Response to Can Congress Force You to Be Healthy?

  1. You write: “Yes, we want affordable health care. No, we don’t want the government interfering in our personal lives. Don’t get emotionally manipulated into believing we can’t have the first without the second.”

    Exactly.