In an earlier post, I explored whether the Obama health insurance mandate was constitutional in a positive sense — is the federal government empowered to take this action? But through the very interesting debate that resulted from that post, it occurred to me that there is a second question that needs to be asked. Does the Constitution affirmatively prohibit such a mandate?
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution is one of the simplest and most morally-defensible principles in our charter:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Pretty easy thing to avoid, no? No American shall be forced against her will to serve another.
As an initial matter, let me be clear – I am in no way suggesting that the severity, cruelty, and horror of human slavery is comparable to the relatively-minimal cost of the health insurance mandate on most Americans. What I am comparing is a principle, and it’s the principle that is prohibited in the Thirteenth Amendment. At an elemental level, the two practices are the same.
In the form of slavery practiced in the United States in the 19th Century, a man was born or brought into this country with an obligation to serve another. His service demanded that he expend at least some, if not all, of his energies, time, and labor on the tasks he was given by his master. In exchange, he was usually given the basic needs for human survival – food, clothing, shelter – but not much more. If he failed in his duty, the law allowed him to be punished. If he fled that obligation, the government would hunt him down and force him to return to servitude. The man could do nothing to pay his debt or satisfy his obligation – he was bound for life.
Consider, now, what Obama’s health care mandate requires you to do.
You must, from the day you become a citizen of the United States, labor to earn money to pay a health insurance company. In return, you are given a promise to pay for most health care services you require. You are coerced to remain in this relationship under penalty of law.
If you become unable to work, you must still seek health insurance from the government (if you are poor, from Medicaid) or spend your savings on health insurance (for those who are not poor). If you fail to do so, you will be punished by the government. If you lose your job, you have no liberty to choose to forego health insurance to pay your mortgage, or buy food for your family, or keep your daughter in college. If you fail to keep your health insurance, you are a criminal.
This obligation begins, for most of us, on the day we are born. Most children will be covered on their parents’ policy, but their parents will immediately be forced to work harder to pay their children’s legally-enforceable debt. If the parents stop paying, not only will the parents be liable, but so will the children. An infant without health insurance will be a fugitive from justice.
When we grow up and become independent (if not sooner), we will be expected to lift the yoke of health insurance off the shoulders of our parents and begin paying for it ourselves. Nevermind that this might happen in our teens, or that we’ll be lucky to pay for pizza delivery to our freshman dorms — the government will demand that you pay for your health insurance first.
If you have a conscience-based objection to the insurance required by the government, you cannot follow your conscience and forego coverage. If you can’t stand the idea of purchasing insurance that covers abortion, you will be punished by the law. If you think a man should stand on his own two feet and refuse to accept “welfare” like Medicaid, you must spend your last dollar on health care or face indictment.
If a health insurer sees that you have stopped paying your premiums, he has a vested interest in snitching to the government, hoping that the threat of law enforcement will get you to start paying again. If the threat isn’t enough, the government can act to force you to get insured or lose your remaining liberty.
If you ever let your health insurance lapse and the government fines you, you’ll be forced to tell future employers that you have been convicted of a crime. Even if you never used any health care during the lapse, your non-payment of premium is a criminal matter.
In short, under the Obama plan, you can never escape your health insurance masters – you can only choose which master you wish to serve. If you ever lay down your shovel and try to walk away, your government overseer will find you, punish you, and put you back in line.
We are a society that is blessed in countless ways. One of those blessings is a total ignorance of human bondage. In other countries, marriages are enforced like servitudes. In Africa and Southeast Asia, classic 19th Century slavery is still practiced and, to some degree, countenanced by the government. Even in some Western democracies, citizens are forced into petty private obligations at the government’s whim, small sacrifices of liberty for the common good.
As much as we often decry the loss of freedom in the U.S., we are an astoundingly free people, particularly in the commercial arena. We are allowed to organize our lives in innumerable ways, and the government largely stays out of the way. One of those ways is health care. Most of us go the easy way, taking the insurance offered at the office, muttering curses at the co-pays but largely happy with the care. Some smaller percentage of us do other things, others take advantage of government programs, and a small but not insignificant group opt out of the insurance market altogether. Does this liberty cost the nation? Yes – all liberty does, because liberties imply the right to make mistakes. But We the People decided some 232 years ago that the costs didn’t matter – we wanted freedom. We fought the bloodiest war in American history to extend this freedom to everyone. We endured decades more of strife and struggle to break the cords of bondage forever.
Surely – surely – our first black President isn’t about to be the first to sign into law an act of Congress that abridges the Thirteenth Amendment?
*this post used to be entitled “The Health Insurance Mandate: Is It Slavery?,” but some friends pointed out that involuntary servitude is the more precise term.