The Health Care Debate Trivializes Civil Liberties


Whether you come from the Left or the Right, the libertarian take on last week's news is exceedingly clear.


Call it a tax; call it a free-rider penalty; call it a premium for emergency care. Call it a banana, for all the democrats who've slipped on its peel. What's in a name? Called a mandate, the Affordable Care Act became the political equivalent of soda or smoking ban -- an assault on freedom and the American way, a power play by a nanny state aiming to make us eat our vegetables.

This is how you exaggerate the "tyranny" of petty bans and an ACA penalty projected to affect one or two percent of the population, while you trivialize civil liberty and distract us from the growth of a potentially totalitarian national security state. This is how you generate hatred of big government and direct it at opposition to social welfare programs, environmental regulations, or oversight of financial markets, while you generate support for (or indifference to) domestic surveillance, the targeting of Muslim Americans, militarized police departments, the criminalization of political dissent, drone warfare, and the failure to close Guantanamo.

"This is about protecting our freedom of choice," a New York-accented actor in a new soda industry ad insists. Not exactly. The Bloomberg soda ban is an irritating exercise of the mayor's misguided paternalism, but New Yorkers will remain free to drown themselves in sugary soft drinks, among other non-nutritional, high caloric indulgences. Meanwhile, harsh new limits and virtual prohibitions on abortions enacted by state legislatures, efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood and to deny access to contraception, are depriving women of the fundamental freedom to control their reproductive lives. When we talk about freedom of choice, why are we talking about the right to purchase a 20 ounce serving of Coke at a ballgame?

"Who's we?" civil libertarians, right and left, as well as reproductive choice advocates might ask. Women's rights activists protest religious assaults on choice, which could reinvent and reinvigorate feminism. A few media elites, advocacy groups, and many activists are committed to resisting the national security state. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee (I serve on its board) aims to educate, support, and help mobilize essential grass roots opposition to the war on liberty.

Civil libertarians, destined to champion unpopular people and causes, are always, inevitably, in the minority. Can they realistically hope to compose a critical mass in time? Only if "freedom fighters" outraged by petty soda and foie gras bans and the ACA's modest tax penalty or premium discover some sense of perspective.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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