The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—aka “Obamacare”—is now the law of the land. It was held to be Constitutional by the US Supreme Court, and it is set to be fully implemented this coming month.
Yet, some state legislatures have refused to develop insurance exchanges, a key part of Obamacare meant to drive down costs, forcing the federal government to do it for them. And House Republicans—led by the so-called “Tea Party”—have now voted to repeal the law a stunning 42 times. Most recently, they passed a bill funding the government but not funding Obamacare.
Incredibly, House Speaker John Boehner claimed the vote was motivated by a democratic sense of serving public sentiment: “The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want Obamacare. The House has listened to the American people. Now it’s time for the United States Senate to listen to them as well.”
Sure enough, polls show that a majority of Americans say they oppose Obamacare. Some oppose it because they think it goes too far, but others oppose it because they think it does not go far enough. So, in reality, about two-thirds of the public want the government to either mandate that people pay for their own medical insurance (as required by Obamacare) or to actually do more (like implementing a single-payer system). That is, Americans are not actually opposed to government involvement in health care. Further, we overwhelmingly favor key provisions of the law.
My argument is that public opinion on matters of human rights is actually irrelevant anyway. We don’t put our rights up for a vote; that is why they are called rights. Whether you like it or not, health care is a human right, recognized not only in international law but also in our own founding documents.
For example, the Declaration of Independence states that humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and thepursuit of Happiness.” We know that about 45,000 Americans die every year simply because they do not have access to affordable health care. This is a restriction of their right to life and clearly interferes with their (and our) happiness.
And the US Constitution was written to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Welfare means well-being, and we know from careful studies that not having medical insurance promotes illness and death and thus runs counter to well-being. Further, peace at home—domestic tranquility—is not realized when Americans get sick and die simply because they are too poor to afford to see a doctor.
Of course, there is at least one fair criticism of Obamacare that is also rooted in a strong American value—liberty. People ask, “How can the government force you to purchase medical insurance? Isn’t that a restriction of your freedom?” Of course it is, but so too is not being able to yell fire in a movie theater when there is no fire; not being able to own a tank or missile launcher in the interests of public safety; not having complete and total privacy from the government as it tries to protect us from terrorists who are using email and phone systems to organize their attacks; or even having to buy car insurance in order to drive!
And so too is having to pay taxes to provide education and roads, as well as police, firefighter, and military protection.
The point being lost by libertarians generally and Tea Party Republicans especially is that liberty is also not an absolute right. I am free to extend my arm as far as I like when in my own personal space, but this right ends at your nose; the minute my behavior harms you, my right to behave that way ends.
People who can afford to carry medical insurance but don’t buy it actually harm others in the form of increased medical costs for all. This does not promote happiness. Or well-being. It even interferes with your liberty to spend your money on other things.
This is what motivated the conservative Heritage Foundation to call for the “individual mandate” that is now part of Obamacare. This is also how conservative Mitt Romney justified implementing the individual mandate at the state level as governor of Massachusetts. And this is what gives the government the right to implement a law forcing people to buy insurance if they can afford it (the law also gives people who cannot afford it financial assistance to pay for it).
Who pays for this? We do. Because it is in the public interest, for the public good. It will, when implemented, help assure life, happiness, and domestic tranquility, as well as provide for the general Welfare.
Given these realities, it is time for state legislatures and House Republicans to end their childish behavior and fully implement the law.
Matthew Robinson, PhD
Professor of Government & Justice Studies
Appalachian State University