The Emperor's Clothes

| Wed Oct. 20, 2010 12:29 PM EDT

Jon Cohn asks a question about the provision in the healthcare reform bill that requires everyone to get health insurance:

The individual mandate continues to be health care reform's most controversial element, both in the courts and on the campaign trail. And many of the mandate's critics see this as a matter of principle. Requiring people to carry health insurance, they say, compromises individual freedom. I don't agree with that argument, but I understand it.

What I don't understand is why the requirement scares people without such strong libertarian instincts.

Answer: it doesn't.

This is what makes writing about policy so frustrating. The answer to Jon's question is pretty obvious. Conservatives have no problem in general with mandating behavior. Nor do they have any problem with mandating affirmative behavior. In the context of healthcare reform, many of them have supported the individual mandate in the past. And the smart ones, at least, understand perfectly well why a mandate is necessary in order to make the broader healthcare reform package work.

Their opposition isn't based on any special principle. It's based on the fact that (a) they don't like healthcare reform and (b) people don't really like being forced to do stuff. This makes the mandate a convenient point of attack. Most non-libertarians don't really care about the mandate, but once Glenn and Sean and Rush have them suitably foaming at the mouth about Barack Obama's relentless attack on all that we hold dear in this country, getting them upset about the mandate is a pretty easy upsell.

But you can't just say this, even though it's plainly true. You have to pretend to take conservative arguments about this seriously. You have to write detailed responses, complete with quotes from law professors and health experts. You have to pretend that this is an actual issue, not just a handy attack point. And so we all spend mountains of time in a sort of pundit fantasyland where we all agree to talk about stuff that we all know nobody truly cares about.

Anyway: Conservatives don't like Barack Obama. They don't like social welfare programs. They don't like healthcare reform. So they're looking for handy ways to attack it, and the mandate fits the bill. Liberals would do the same thing if the shoe were on the other foot. There's no need to complicate what's going on here.1

1I will, of course, continue to complicate this kind of thing regularly myself. It's what I do, after all. But I'm pretty sure that I lose a hundredth of an IQ point every time I do, which means my career as a writer is probably self limiting.