Column on Forced Conduct

Forcing Us to Do what We Choose not to do

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of years many conservatives have argued against President Obama’s health care program on the grounds that it unconstitutionally forces citizens to purchase something they may not want. Imposing this kind of force conduct, they have argued, violates the right of a citizen to refrain from doing something, the right to liberty or to freedom of choice. Generally this may well be a sound objection although I am doubtful about its violation of the U. S. Constitution.

In response, defenders of Mr. Obama’s health care project tend to point to the fact that state governments require citizens to purchase car insurance. That comparison, however, is fallacious: one only needs to buy such insurance if one drives on public roads and driving on such roads is not deemed to be a basic right but a privilege since government owns the roads. This seems to be a legal distinction with some teeth to it. Mr. Obama’s program requires one to purchase health insurance no matter what, just as a matter of one’s citizenship. And car insurance, some have pointed out, serves to protect fellow travelers and is thus not, like requiring one to buy health insurance, a paternalistic policy.

But there is another measure many conservatives fully embrace that compares with making people buy health insurance: making them check on the citizenship of prospective employees. In their vigilance against illegal immigration, many conservatives insist that those who employ people may be forced to check on whether those they plan to hire are in America legally.

Now this seems to be a clear case of forcing such employers to do something they may not want to do. It is also outsourcing a line of professional work to non-professionals. Checking on the legal status of prospective employees is detective work and should only be performed by authorized agents of the law, not by private citizens. Yes, in some cases one citizen may even arrest another, but usually only in special circumstances, such as when illegal conduct is clearly evident and not something one needs to detect through the scrutiny of someone else’s legal status.

In any case, forcing citizens to engage in law enforcement is not very different from forcing them to purchase insurance. In both cases citizens are required to perform something they may well not choose to perform. One may even regard this as imposing upon citizens involuntary servitude or force labor.

Of course, here too there is plenty of precedence. When the government forces employers to collect taxes from those they employ, that is forced labor as well. The collecting of the income tax throughout the year, the requirement that this be accurately and promptly reported to the IRS, are no less forcing people to do something they do not choose to do than is forcing them to buy health insurance.

It is thus a bit hypocritical of many Americans to be outraged with Mr. Obama’s and the Democrats’ health care law. If one consistently opposed making people do things they do not choose to do, many measures of municipal, county, state and federal governments would have to be declared wrong and maybe unconstitutional.

We live in a mixed system. There are elements of socialism, fascism, communism, capitalism, libertarianism and other regimes the American legal system includes. Cherry picking some and insisting that one is doing so as a matter of principled adherence to the U. S. Constitution may not be very credible. If one is going to object to governmental regimentation, to forcing people to act in ways they to not choose to (apart from abstaining from violating the rights of fellow citizens), it would have to begin with numerous measures way before getting to Mr. Obama’s health care policy.

As with the objection to restricting corporate contributions to political campaigns–based not on what this should be based on, namely, the violation of private property rights but on its alleged curtailment of freedom of speech–the objection to Obama care is a bit forced. People are made to do so many things by their various governments that to protest making them buy health insurance because this involves making them do something they don’t choose to do simply isn’t credible.

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