Interestingly, Ryan’s plan imposes, if anything, a harsher penalty on those who don’t buy health insurance. Ryan’s tax credit is far larger than the individual mandate’s penalty, and much easier to enforce. Under Ryan’s plan, if you don’t purchase insurance, you don’t get the credit. End of story. Conversely, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t include an actual enforcement mechanism for the individual mandate. If you refuse to pay it, the Internal Revenue Service can’t throw you in jail, dock your wages or really do anything at all. This leads to one of the secrets of Obamacare: Perhaps the best deal in the bill is to pay the mandate penalty year after year and only buy insurance once you get sick. To knowingly free ride, in other words. In that world, the mandate acts as an option to buy insurance at a low price when you need it. For that reason, when health-care policy experts worry about the mandate, they don’t worry that it is too coercive. They worry it isn’t coercive enough.
The mandate is considered more effective than tax credits because people seem more inclined to take action to avoid penalties than to receive benefits. That’s worked extremely well in Massachusetts, for instance, where there’s been almost no free-rider problem at all. Although it’s not different as a matter of economics, it’s a bit different as a matter of behavioral economics. In that way, the mandate does a little more to solve the free-rider problem with a little less action from the government.
Randy Barnett, a conservative law professor at Georgetown University, agrees that there’s some similarity between the two approaches. But he warns that that doesn’t make them legally equivalent. “Just because the government does have the power to do X, doesn’t mean they have the power to do Y, even if Y has the same effect as X,” he says. “There’s no constitutional principle like that.”
Although that’s true, it also leaves us in a peculiar spot. The constitutional argument over Obamacare is a dispute over a technicality. We agree that it’s constitutional for the government to intervene far more aggressively in the market. We agree that it’s constitutional for it to intervene in an almost identical, albeit slightly more roundabout, manner. We’re just not sure if the government needs to call the individual mandate a “tax” rather than “a penalty,” or perhaps structure it as a tax credit. As Pauly puts it, “This seems to me to be angelic pinhead density arguments about whether it’s a payment to do something or not to do something.”
Of course, this battle isn’t really about the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Members of the Republican Party didn’t express concerns that the individual mandate might be an unconstitutional assault on liberty when they devised the idea in the late 1980s, or when they wielded it against the Clinton White House in the 1990s, or when it was passed it into law in Massachusetts in the mid-2000s. Only after the mandate became the centerpiece of the Democrats’ health-care bill did its constitutionality suddenly become an issue.
The real fight is over whether the Affordable Care Act should exist at all. Republicans lost that battle in Congress, where they lacked a majority in 2010. Now they hope to win it in the Supreme Court, where they hold a one-vote advantage. The argument against the individual mandate is a pretext to overturn Obamacare. But it’s a pretext that could set a very peculiar precedent.
If the mandate falls, future politicians, who will still need to fix the health-care system and address the free-rider problem, will be left with the option to move toward a single-payer system or offer incredibly large, expensive tax credits in order to persuade people to do things they don’t otherwise want to do. That is to say, in the name of liberty, Republicans and their allies on the Supreme Court will have guaranteed a future with much more government intrusion in the health-care marketplace.