Heart of the Matter

Behind Court Challenge to Health Care Lies the Right’s ‘Freedom Fetish’

Conservatives love to say Obama has robbed us of our liberty. But can they name a single freedom that the administration has curtailed? Michael Tomasky poses a challenge. Plus, John AVlon on why the right abandoned the individual mandate.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo

Behind the challenges to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) being heard at the Supreme Court this week is the idea that Barack Obama wants to take away your freedoms (as Mitt Romney himself asserted today). I’ve long since stopped counting the number of ridiculous things said about Obama, but this might be the ridiculousest of them all. At least the Kenyan rumors have some basis in reality, however threadbare it is, since his father was indeed Kenyan and he does have a funny name, for an American president. But this "freedom" business is simply paranoid and delusional. I defy anyone to name for me a specific and precise freedom that Obama has taken away from the American people. You can’t. When they’re not just invented out of whole cloth by multi-millionaire propagandists, all such laments are based on ignorance about what freedom actually means and an equal ignorance about how our system of government works.

Back in March 2010, Megyn Kelly was on Fox talking up a CNN poll showing that 54 percent of people thought the government could pose a threat to their rights. This clinched it, she said. But Alan Colmes came on and actually asked her: Okay, Megyn, what freedoms, exactly, have disappeared under President Obama? She didn’t answer, and of course she didn’t answer because there is no answer. People are “worried,” she said, that “the federal government is going to step in, take over, and they’re not going to be able to see their [health-care] coverage.” It just got lamer from there.

I wouldn’t doubt that there are assorted people here and there who may have been, say, adversely affected by a wetlands determination or some other bureaucratic decision. And of course there are American citizens who have been detained—and worse—in the war on terror. They tend to be of Arab descent, and something tells me these Americans aren’t the ones Kelly or those protesting the Affordable Care Act outside the Supreme Court building have in mind. Outside of those examples, though, the idea that anyone is losing freedoms in this country is foolishness.

Obama has done no harm to civil liberties or the Bill of Rights (except in the category mentioned above). He’s made no move of any sort to curtail the Second Amendment. Wayne LaPierre and his people at the NRA are always warning that it’s only a matter of time; a second Obama term will “break the back of the Second Amendment,” La Pierre said not long ago. That’s how he keeps the checks coming in. Of course there is no evidence for this claim. Just the murky (not to say insane) idea that a black liberal loves criminals and wants law-abiding white people not to be able to defend themselves.

As I read through a few web pages and blogs detailing alleged Obama-driven assaults on freedom, it becomes clear that many of these people don’t really have the faintest idea of what freedom in a Democratic society even means. Here, for example, is a Republican congressional hopeful in Missouri, who thinks Obama, along with his own opponent Russ Carnahan, want to take away “the ultimate freedom, to find your salvation, to get your salvation, and to find Christ for me and you, and I think that’s one of the things we have to be very, very aware of that the Obama administration and Congressman Carnahan are doing to us.”

This is just gobbledygook. What this man doesn’t like is Obama’s posture toward the state and religion. But there is no freedom issue here. Neither is there a freedom issue with regard to the Catholic Church and the recent controversy over contraception. First of all, no church has to change a single thing about the way it operates. And Catholic hospitals will not, under the new rule, have to provide contraceptive coverage—they will just be required, if they refuse to provide such coverage, to tell enrollees how they can acquire it through other means. In fact, now that I think about it, the only people who can make any claims that their freedoms are being impinged by the Obama administration are the non-Catholic women hired by Catholic hospitals who might now have trouble getting free contraceptive coverage. Them, plus the women inquiring about abortion in the states where they will now be made to listen to fetal heartbeats and so on, laws that very clearly are attempts to coerce women into not availing themselves of an existing legal right. But that isn’t being done by Obama.

The silliness of the freedom argument against Obama really comes down to this: The ACA was a law, made within our political processes, according to the rules and norms of same. Obama isn’t the king. He didn’t decree this law. Congress negotiated it and passed it. If people don’t want such laws, they need to elect Congresspeople that won’t make them. This, incidentally, is the answer to an oft-bruited rhetorical question, “What’s to prevent the government from making a law requiring that everyone eat broccoli?” One answer is: nothing, at least in theory. If a future Congress wants to make such a law, it can do so and see what happens in the courts. Which means that the real answer is—politics. If you don’t want a law mandating the eating of broccoli, work to elect people to Congress who won’t pass such laws. The folks on the pro-broccoli side will work to do the opposite, and the side that does a better job will win. That’s the democratic process. Majority rule. “Freedom” has nothing to do with it.

The classic definition of freedom, or liberty, is still John Stuart Mill’s. His sentence that goes, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” can be quoted out of context to imply that a person shouldn’t have to buy health insurance. But context shows that a few sentences earlier, Mill discussed the harm principle. A person can act with complete freedom so long as his actions don’t harm others. Well, pal, if you’re healthy and 35 and you don’t buy insurance and you get hit by a bus and you need $10,000 in medical care and you can’t and don’t pay for it, that harms me, because I’m an insured taxpayer and I’m helping to pick up your tab. That is freedom: not just the right to be left alone, but also the obligation to take responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions on the freedom of other members of society. By that definition, the ACA is enhancing freedom, and personal responsibility—which is why conservatives were for the mandate in the first place.