With Tax Comes (Arbitrary) Power

July 19th, 2010

In defending their healthcare “reform” bill passed in March, the Obama administration is arguing the individual mandate is constitutional because it is a tax:

In a brief defending the law, the Justice Department says the requirement for people to carry insurance or pay the penalty is “a valid exercise” of Congress’s power to impose taxes.

Congress can use its taxing power “even for purposes that would exceed its powers under other provisions” of the Constitution, the department said. For more than a century, it added, the Supreme Court has held that Congress can tax activities that it could not reach by using its power to regulate commerce.

I’ll just get the tragically amusing part of this in real quick, because it isn’t what I want to focus on. During the push for their bill, Obama insisted the mandate wasn’t a tax, because it would amount to a tax increase and thus would violate his pledge not to raise taxes on individuals with less than $250,000 of income. So he lied to get his bill passed. I’m sure you’re shocked.

But what concerns me more about this story is the final line of the above quoted section. Congress has the power to levy taxes to provide for the general welfare of the nation, and the article goes on to say that in the Supreme Court’s decision on Social Security, they held that it is Congress’s duty to decide what is for the general welfare, not the courts’. Thus, the Obama administration argues, the individual mandate is constitutional because Congress has decided this tax is toward the general welfare of the nation.

Think about that for a second. Under the Supreme Court’s 1937 decision, Congress is free to levy a tax on almost anything it wants—provided they believe it to be in the “general welfare” of the nation—and there’s no check against it. There’s no court that can overturn it, no legal test to decide whether something is toward the general welfare of the nation, nothing. The court completely abdicated its power to Congress.1

A tax is an incredibly powerful tool in influencing societal behavior. If the individual mandate, which requires every American to purchase health insurance or be fined, is constitutional, then why can’t Congress tax anyone who doesn’t donate x percentage of their income to charity each year? Why can’t Congress tax companies without unionized labor? Why can’t Congress tax music or filmmakers whose work is deemed indecent or obscene, to discourage their polluting of society?

A “tax” is not just a means for government to raise revenue. The power to tax is also a bludgeoning tool to make certain practices prohibitively expensive for people to do so they are less likely to do it. Basically, it’s a tool for government to control individual behavior. Using the power of taxation in this way is terribly contradictory to the spirit of the Constitution and the intent of our nation: to allow people to live their lives how they choose, without a government dictating to them. It is an end-run around the Constitution, which was created to limit the federal government’s power to very specifically defined powers. As interpreted, and as used by the Obama administration to justify their individual mandate, the power of taxation becomes an arbitrary power for Congress to control society however it pleases.

This should be quite disturbing for all Americans, including people who support the Democrats’ healthcare “reform.” In this case, you might believe being forced to purchase health insurance is a small price to pay for covering the medical needs of more Americans. But please remember, you may not like some of the controlling and authoritarian laws this produces in the future. Your guy will not always be in office. This marks the road toward authoritarianism, and it is a trail of tears no matter what your party.

  1. Please note that the Supreme Court could, technically, overturn this decision. But under current case-law, this holds true. []