Supporters of the individual mandate have harped on the point that it was “originally a conservative idea.” (Here’s a news story elaborating this view.) It is certainly true that the Heritage Foundation and many Republican politicians supported it. Although this fact hardly establishes that it is a good idea or, when imposed at the federal level, a constitutional one, it is a fact, and it’s worth noting. Conservatives were not always as dead-set against the mandate as they are now, and some influential conservatives supported it.
But we shouldn’t overstate the case. I think an accurate description of the history of rightist opinion on this question would look at three separate groups: politicians, think tanks, and grassroots conservatives. This last group never really focused on the individual mandate, and never really had any reason to. I doubt that it would ever have been popular with this group.
The think tankers were divided, with the Heritage Foundation an outlier. It was an outlier, too, in the broader right-of-center intellectual world. (For whatever it’s worth, I was reading NR pretty closely in the mid-’90s and do not recall its ever endorsing the mandate.)
The politicians were the group most likely to embrace the individual mandate. Most of them gave no serious thought to the issue but thought it would be helpful in resisting various liberal health-care plans, and knew that the Heritage Foundation favored it.
So yes, conservative opinion on the mandate has changed. But I don’t think it’s right to suggest that most conservative voters or conservative policy thinkers ever supported it. I think what happened is that as soon as grassroots conservatives focused on the mandate, they hated it—and they were right to hate it, in my view–and both the politicians and that one outlier think tank responded to their sentiment.
P.S. This report from Ruth Shalit in the Feb. 14, 1994, edition of The New Republic captures the flavor of the argument within the free-market camp:
In his May/June president’s message to contributors, Cato President Edward H. Crane lamented that “our friends at The Heritage Foundation have endorsed a mandated, compulsory, universal national health plan’ which flies in the face of the American heritage of individual liberty and individual responsibility.” Butler responded with an angry three-page letter deploring Crane’s gibe as ” just the latest in a series of pot-shots… Attacking Heritage for its alleged political incorrectness seems to have become a cottage industry at Cato and at ncpa.” The squabbling continued at Cato’s recent tenth anniversary dinner. Introducing the honored guests, Crane pointed to Stuart Butler and said, “At first Stuart didn’t want to come. So we decided to mandate that he appear.” Recalls one attendee, “People didn’t think it was funny. There was complete silence. Stuart was aghast. Everyone was embarrassed.” When a Heritage staffer last month wrote a paper for the conservative lobbying group Citizens for a Sound Economy that included criticism of the individual mandate, “he couldn’t put his name on it,” says a cse staffer. “He knew it would destroy him at Heritage.” Of the dispute, Butler will say only: “The Cato plan isn’t a threat. Merely an irritation. Those who criticize us are not players.”