The irony of the South Dakota mandate

THE IRONY OF THE SOUTH DAKOTA MANDATE…. Several lawmakers in South Dakota, hoping to make an awkward point about health care, have proposed requiring adults in the state to purchase a firearm after turning 21. They don’t expect it to pass, but they’re hoping to demonstrate how ridiculous they think it is to have officials require the public to purchase things.

To hear these conservatives put it, the notion of an individual mandate is at odds with the American system. The irony, reader C.E. reminded me, is that Congress passed — and George Washington supported — a measure in 1792 that required all men eligible for militia service to have a firearm and ammunition, even if they had to buy them, and even if they don’t want them. (It came six years before John Adams and Thomas Jefferson supported legislation that required private citizens to pay into a public health-care system.)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in all likelihood, the Founding Fathers were aware of what the Founding Fathers considered constitutionally permissible — and that South Dakota Republicans probably didn’t think their little stunt all the way through.

Jack Balkin explained in a very good piece that, towards the end of the 18th century, the “requirement to join the militia (and purchase arms for the defense of the state) was an aspect of civic republicanism — the political idea that citizens had a duty to work toward the public good and make sacrifices on behalf of their fellow citizens and the republic.” There’s clearly an aspect to this in the health care debate, too.

What is lost in the debate over the individual mandate is that the point of the individual mandate is also civic republican in nature. It requires citizens to make a far less significant but also public-spirited sacrifice on behalf of other Americans who cannot afford health insurance. Individuals must join health insurance risk pools to make health care affordable for more of their fellow citizens. This is a very modest request that individuals not be entirely selfish and that they contribute to the public good in a small way by helping to make health care accessible and affordable for all Americans. Indeed, under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, one doesn’t even have to purchase insurance; one can simply pay a small tax instead. And one doesn’t have to pay at all if one is too poor to do so or has a religious objection.

The notion that being asked to either buy health insurance and make health care accessible for one’s fellow citizens — or to pay a small tax — is a form of tyranny akin to George III’s regime is simply bizarre: it shows how perverted and twisted public discourse has become in the United States.