Mehring: Live Free or Die?
By Adam Mehring, Staff Columnist
Published on Tuesday, July 3, 2012
What do New Hampshire seat belt laws have to do with the Affordable Care Act? The connection may not seem apparent at first. On the seatbelt issue, the state of New Hampshire takes its state motto, “Live Free or Die,” to the literal extreme. Regulations that have significantly reduced death and injury from motor vehicle accidents in every other American state infringe too far upon individual liberties in New Hampshire. Living free from this governmental intrusion is literally worth dying for, apparently.
New Hampshire’s lack of seat belt regulations for those over the age of 18 is based on the premise that individuals are free to make poor decisions so long as those decisions do not infringe upon the freedoms of others. Personal responsibility compels individuals to act in their own best interests — or not, but the choice is theirs to make. This position encapsulates a major inadequacy of the classic American conception of liberty — it assumes that an immediate sparing of governmental intervention, which suggests some nebulous, illusory freedom, should take precedence over the deeper promise of liberty, equality and prosperity for all.
At the moment of impact, only the person not wearing a seat belt is affected by the impact of the crash. However, the same cannot be said in the aftermath, when the consequences of that decision extend beyond the scene of the accident. Other involved parties will almost certainly be injured, perhaps mortally. Families will be torn asunder by the associated psychological and practical effects. There are broader effects, still: the loss of productivity, the costs of health care, the erasure of that individual from our society. In this regard, the immediate preservation of individual liberty works in more complicated ways to infringe upon the liberties of the multitude.
Of course, none of our actions work in isolation without affecting those outside of ourselves. I don’t mean to suggest that the government should regulate any and all behavior that could potentially place any sort of undue burden on another. But when the capacity to reduce or eliminate such harm is so easily identifiable and so fundamental to the purpose, a codified regulation — a mandate, if you will — even while technically encroaching on unqualified autonomy, serves to protect the rights and liberties of both the individual and the many. Seat belt laws serve such a purpose.
So does the Affordable Care Act.
Possessing health insurance, which has become synonymous in our country with having reasonable access to health care, is indisputably necessary to reduce the unavoidable harms brought forth by illness and poor health. The lack of reasonable access to health care imposes harm and undue stress on both individuals and those around them by burdening families, weakening the labor force, adding to the skyrocketing costs of health care and by siphoning resources away from other private and public services. A minor, specific concession of self-determination — being required by law to possess health insurance — helps ensure the right to life, liberty and prosperity for everyone.
The classic American conception of liberty does not concern itself so much with the potential consequences of staunchly and indiscriminately resisting government control. When the decision preserving that measure of self-reliance is indisputably a poor one — not wearing a seat belt or not owning health insurance — the law can and should step in to ensure the most favorable outcome for all and preserve the ability to exercise freedom for all.
But it should be noted that unlike the use of a seat belt, not all Americans have the luxury to make the personal decision of whether or not to possess health insurance, and, in turn, have access to adequate health care. The Affordable Care Act extends protections to many of these individuals, specifically those who could not previously afford health insurance and those unable to obtain insurance due to pre-existing conditions. In this regard, the substantial resistance to health care reform is particularly troubling. We as Americans need to redraw our understanding of individual liberty to include not just our own pursuits, but the pursuits of the many. And the instinct to resist a legislative mandate and cling to an unenlightened ideal of personal freedom and responsibility, even while those around us actively suffer, might best be countered with a hefty dose of compassion.