Yuval Levin is (as usual) right about Simon Lazarus’s strange article in Slate, and in particular about his “correction” to it — a correction that requires a further, and abject, correction of its own. I want to make one more point about the argument, though, because I think it reflects a mistaken but widespread assumption that makes it hard for some people to see the full obnoxiousness of the individual mandate. In fact, Mitt Romney once made a very similar argument to me.
The argument, as Romney made it, goes like this: The McCain plan to give people health-care tax credits was very similar to his own individual mandate. In the case of the McCain plan, the consequence of not buying health insurance would be a higher tax payment. (Since you wouldn’t get the tax credit.) In the case of a mandate, not buying insurance would also result in a payment of some sort to the government. (In the case of Obamacare, it’s a fine; Romney, in this interview, outlined other ways of enforcing a mandate.) So what’s the difference?
Here’s the difference: When the government passes laws, there’s a general expectation that people have an obligation to obey them. (I’ve tried to make this point before.) We aren’t obligated to take advantage of every tax credit made available to us. The Romney/Lazarus argument assumes an amoral view of the law. People who make this assumption, I think, don’t quite get what law is. They also don’t understand the moral objection to the mandate, which is in large part a rejection of the government’s claim to be able to make this demand of us.