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Can Congress Make You Buy Broccoli?

Can Congress force you to eat certain foods? To buy health insurance? So much for the 1970s mantra of "My body, my choice."

by
Theodore Dalrymple

Bio

December 31, 2010 - 12:08 am
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But is this actually true? Insofar as there is no choice in the matter — in the immunization of children, for example — it is because the law has removed that choice. But there is no reason other than their choice to do so why people should seek medical attention. Indeed, it is now a fundamental principle of medical ethics that no person of sound mind and with the mental capacity to decide for himself may be coerced into medical treatment, even if he will die without it. Every doctor knows of, and has been frustrated by, patients who have refused life-saving treatment.

Besides, other products are much more important in sustaining human life than health care. With a good physical constitution you can live for decades without a doctor; you cannot survive more than a few days without water. Food too is essential, much more essential than medicine. Moreover, if failure to buy health care insurance bears on interstate commerce, so does eating hamburgers instead of broccoli, and this is so even if it subsequently turns out (as has happened many times in the history of nutritional advice) that eating broccoli is bad for you.

The question that the authors ask is whether the Commerce Clause in the Constitution “authorizes Congress to require individuals to buy products that Congress thinks they should buy to further the general welfare.” To search for a sharp line of demarcation between what legislators may and may not legitimately do has baffled the minds of political philosophers for centuries; but there is no doubt that, left to their own devices, most politicians would like to make you eat up your greens.

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Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Second Opinion: A Doctor's Notes from the Inner City.
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