Beware Counterfeit 'Responsibility'

The ObamaCare individual insurance mandate met its first courtroom defeat when Judge Henry Hudson ruled it unconstitutional in Commonwealth of Virginia v. Sebelius. But while the legal battle is likely to smolder on for years until it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, the rhetorical battle is heating up in the court of public opinion. In particular, the Obama administration is attempting to defend the individual mandate as a matter of “individual responsibility.” If Americans allow them to get away with this counterfeit notion of “responsibility,” it will jeopardize the freedoms that make genuine individual responsibility possible.

In his December 13, 2010, news conference, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly referred to the individual mandate as the “individual responsibility” portion of the law. This is not a new rhetorical tactic. Massachusetts’ Republican Governor Mitt Romney made similar arguments back in 2006 when he defended his state’s system of mandatory insurance as a matter of “personal responsibility,” a position he still holds. In both cases, they argued that uninsured patients receiving free health care were free riders on those who chose to purchase insurance. Hence, in the name of “personal responsibility,” everyone should be forced to purchase insurance.

But the idea of forcing people to act in a certain way inverts the very notion of responsibility. The concept of responsibility arises from the fact that humans have free will, and can thus choose to act in ways that benefit -- or harm -- themselves.

Personal responsibility thus presupposes that an individual has the freedom to make his own decisions and to enjoy — or suffer — the consequences thereof. In the context of health insurance, personal responsibility means that if a patient wants to pay a willing insurer more money now in exchange for the assurance of lower future medical costs if he becomes ill, then he is free to make that choice. Similarly, personal responsibility means that if he chooses not to purchase health insurance and later incurs a $10,000 medical bill, he will be held accountable for it even if he has to sell his car, borrow money from his family, or rely on charity. In contrast, when the government forbids an individual from making such choices about his health insurance, it makes personal responsibility in this area literally impossible.

Contrary to Gibbs and Romney, the problem of free riders arises not from a lack of individual responsibility — but because the government deliberately uncouples an individual’s behavior from its consequences. To the extent that laws like EMTALA (Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act) compel physicians and hospitals to render medical care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, the government itself creates the free rider problem and undermines genuine responsibility.

Suppose the government attempted to promote its version of “individual responsibility” as follows:

“We promise to cover all your medical expenses for life. But because we’re paying the bills, we’ll also tell you what you may or may not eat. You must obey our diet restrictions in the name of individual responsibility.”

Or, “To prevent citizens from being free riders on the welfare system, we’ll assign everyone to jobs of our choosing, tell you what to do, and pay you what we decide is best. See, you’re all responsible now!”

It would be clear that such restrictions on our freedoms would destroy genuine individual responsibility, in the name of a counterfeit version. And if we allow the government to get away with this fraudulent version of “responsibility,” it will increasingly seek to usurp decisions that rightfully belong to individuals.

We can see a foretaste of this in First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent remarks at the signing ceremony for the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” (which specifies what foods children may or may not eat at government-funded school meal programs), saying: “We can’t just leave it up to the parents.

Currently, there is a legitimate problem of some individuals genuinely seeking to exercise their individual responsibility and purchase health insurance, but who have difficulty doing so because they’ve changed jobs or due to “pre-existing conditions.” But these problems were created by decades of government interference in the free market for insurance. Hence, they will not be solved by imposing new laws mandating which types of insurance must be sold (and purchased), but rather by free-market reforms that allow customers and insurers to voluntarily contract to their mutual benefit. In other words, it is government regulations that undermine (or make impossible) the exercise of individual responsibility in this setting; only a free market truly protects insurability and allows people to fully exercise their personal responsibility.

Individual responsibility and individual freedom are inextricably linked. Individual freedom is a necessary precondition for exercising individual responsibility. Conversely, the regular exercise of individual responsibility promotes the virtues of rationality and independence necessary to protect our individual freedoms.

Hence, we must be ever vigilant to defend the proper concept of responsibility, rather than allowing men like Robert Gibbs or Mitt Romney to corrupt it for their own political purposes. Just as you wouldn’t accept counterfeit money for the real thing, or accept poison in place of food, don’t accept counterfeit “responsibility” in place of the real thing. It’s only your freedom — and your life — at stake.