Life, Liberty, and the Right to Free Ride: The Shell Game of Republican “Debate”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the shell game of conservative Republican “debate” is on full display: Every time the Democrats adopt a term or policy the Republicans have used and championed, they reject it and move on to another. Personal responsibility, individual mandate, free rider—tax! Is there any way to win this game? And what game are we playing?

Like shell game hustlers busted up by a cop, conservative Republicans are running for the alley and regrouping on another street corner after the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Justice Roberts threw them a bone, though, in using the term “tax” to declare why a small assessment on people who can afford but choose not to buy health insurance is constitutional. Now the Republican “debate” about “health insurance” is centered on their favorite sin, raising taxes.

If you’re having trouble making sense of all this, don’t worry. It doesn’t make sense.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and the conservative Heritage Foundation, all of whom championed the individual mandate approach before it was adopted by President Obama, used terms like personal responsibility and free riders to explain the policy: when people who can afford health insurance but choose not to purchase it need health care that exceeds their means, our current system requires that they are given health care anyway.

To pay for these “free riders,” insurance companies raise rates on others or government programs—taxpayers—cover the cost. So the individual mandate —giving people a choice to either buy health insurance or to pay a fee—was a device to encourage personal responsibility, a value normally brandished like a bludgeon by the right.

But of course now we have endured several years’ of Republican railing against the individual mandate as an act of tyranny and government affront to liberty, personal responsibility having apparently fallen out of favor. No real surprise, here.

Though it’s tempting—almost irresistible in fact—to counter the Republicans’ objections to the ACA point by point, that would be an exercise in futility. The pea will always be under the other walnut shell.

The only way to make sense of this “debate” is to realize what game the Republicans are playing. It’s not about how to reform health insurance or how to provide health care to all Americans. The game is how to get a black man out of the White House.

If you think you can win the shell game, you don’t know what game you’re playing.

CRITICAL THINKING EXERCISEPut some peas of your own under the walnut shells. The meme that the Affordable Care Act is unpopular is a lie—when people are asked what they think of the actual provisions of the Act, an overwhelming majority approve. (Making it illegal for insurance companies to dump you when you get sick? What’s not to like?) Go to and find out what the Affordable Care Act actually does. There’s a very cool timeline that tells you what provisions take effect when, and what they do. Meanwhile, keep registering people to vote, so we can win the game we’re really playing.


About meme_ster

Tracking power through language
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