Cultural Psychology

The Social Contract, Thoreau, and the Individual Health Insurance Mandate

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The Social Contract, Thoreau, and the Individual Health Insurance Mandate

It used to be (and hopefully is still the case), that, if one really wanted to, one could go some place like Montana, build a cabin, and ‘live off the land’. Today people associate this with extremists, but traditionally in American history this was just called homesteading. (Until recently, this was still done in Alaska; maybe it still is.) With no income, a person wouldn’t have to pay income tax. If someone else owned the land and let the person live there, there would be no property taxes. This person could live like Thoreau, a totally free individual. And, like Thoreau, this person, by virtue of this independence, might be able to more fully realize the depths and potentials of the human soul better than those who merely live like cogs in a machine.

Now consider that our Constitution, and our country itself, is founded on the principle of the Social Contract. By this principle, consenting individuals freely choose to abrogate the exercise of certain rights in exchange for the benefits of living in a community. Although they abrogate the exercise of certain rights (it is not clear that a person ever surrenders rights per se, but only the exercise of rights), they retain their essential freedom because they have freely chosen to participate in the Social Contract. The possibility to ‘live off the land’, or whatever else one wants to call it, arguably preserves our essential freedom. Perhaps in all cases a person would be foolish or unrealistic to drop out like this; maybe it should never be done in practice. But even if nobody chooses it, the option to live off the land exists: this makes us essentially free, and makes participation in the Social Contract a free choice.

Contrarily, if participation in the Social Contract is forced, then not only are people not free, but the Social Contract is invalid: a fundamental, universally acknowledged principle governing contracts is that parties must freely agree to participate; any contract effected by coercion is automatically invalid.

The Constitution does not go into the details of the Social Contract, but it is evident in the writings of the founding fathers that such considerations guided them. The insurance mandate would remove the ability of a person to live entirely freely. In theory, a person would need to earn money to pay the required subscription premium. If this does not negate the Social Contract entirely, then it is at least a fundamental alteration of in the nature of that contract, which is something not to be taken lightly. A change in the relationship of the individual to society/government this major should only be made with broad citizen support, with careful deliberation, and, preferably, only by means of a constitutional amendment.

Further, as the connection with Thoreau helps make evident, the current debate does broach issues related to religious freedom. If we build a society where there can no longer be a hermitage at Walden Pond, then some would argue that government is attempting to limit and control the human soul.

John Uebersax PhD is a former faculty member of the Wake Forest Medical School and RAND Corporation policy analyst.


Written by John Uebersax

March 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm

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  1. […] Religious Exemption from the Individual Health Insurance Mandate […]

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