Having lost their Supreme Court fight against the Affordable Care Act, opponents of health care reform have in recent days been attacking the individual mandate provision of the law as a “tax” on the middle class. This line of reasoning only makes sense if you think penalties for littering, speeding, or engaging in other irresponsible behavior are also “taxes.”
Yes, it’s true that conservative Chief Justice John Roberts used a tax rationale when upholding the constitutionality of the individual mandate—and the entire law—last week. But Roberts was making a technical argument and using the word “tax” in a way that really only makes sense in an arcane legal context.
First, some background: The health care law’s so-called “individual mandate” provision requires people who can afford to buy health insurance to do so, and when it’s phased in, it will assess a penalty of up to 2.5 percent of household income on those who don’t. That’s only fair, since the health care costs of the uninsured are borne by the rest of us.
You don’t need a law degree to understand the difference between a fine and a tax, and this one falls pretty neatly into the former category, as we explain below. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans—rich, poor, or middle class—will never be assessed what’s more rightly understood as the “freeloader penalty” at the center of this debate.
Still, while the tax-themed attack on the individual mandate is incoherent, it remains dangerous. Opponents of health reform well understand the power of the T-word to fire popular resentment, and will try to confuse the public about what the individual mandate is and how it works. Here are some facts to keep in mind.
Unlike taxes, this penalty is avoidable
Taxes are, for the most part, involuntary. We pay taxes on our
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