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What Edmund Burke Knew About Obamacare

President Obama announces health care decisions Just this week, the Obama administration announced that it will delay the implementation of the portion of the Affordable Care Act that mandates a $2000 per worker penalty on businesses that do not provide insurance coverage for workers. That provision was supposed to come into effect in January, but will now wait until after the 2014 mid-term elections. This portion of the law is understandably odious to employers, as it imposes a financial burden that many are not prepared to handle—any worker working 30 or more hours a week must be provided health insurance, which can be very costly. One of the bedrock ideas of conservative thought is the law of unintended consequences. Despite our best calculated projections, we can’t know for certain the outcomes of every public policy decision. This seems to have been lost on the Obama administration. Many businesses have responded to the law by cutting back hours for employees. One man who works at a restaurant in Toledo is seeing his wages drop by $400 a month as a result of reduced hours. This isn’t a great exception: According to Gallup, 41% of small-businesses owners have held off on hiring new employees as a consequence of the law. The other great controversy about Obamacare is the issue of religious conscience. As has been well-reported, the administration is forcing some religiously affiliated organizations to provide health insurance plans to employees which cover contraceptives or abortion-inducing drugs. To many Americans, this is a serious violation of religious conscience, and perhaps marks a shift in the culture that “rights,” as defined by societal consensus, trump the natural law definition of rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. A Rasmussen survey showed that many Americans support a religious exemption to the mandate. Clearly, Obamacare represents a major disruption for some small businesses and religious groups. This kind of government incursion into American life is grounded in a compassionate motive—providing healthcare to those that don’t have it. But it is coercive. Americans will have less freedom to run their businesses or worship God in the ways they are accustomed to. The 18th century English parliamentarian Edmund Burke knew the importance of letting institutions in society alone. Although Burke never distinguished himself in politics as a prime minister, and had to consistently fight for his seat, few thinkers in Western history have contributed more to a modern understanding of freedom. Society, theorized Burke, is composed of “little platoons,” the interlocking webs of families, churches, businesses, book clubs, political parties and pick-up soccer games that compose a nation. Burke drew on that famous, but often misunderstood quote of Aristotle to build his political philosophy: “man is a political animal.” By this Aristotle did not mean that all men in involved in politics were ruthless. Rather, he understood that human beings have a natural desire to attach themselves to community, to be part of the polis. So says Burke: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society is … the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and our mankind.” Furthermore, for Burke, a nation flourishes best when these various institution in society remain undisturbed. We see this in a quote by Adam Smith, the godfather of laissez-faire economics, describing Burke: “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.” It is appropriate, then, that as we celebrate our 237th Independence Day, we can thank Burke for being one of the few English political leaders to support the American revolution, largely because he saw the British system of taxation in the colonies as philosophically unjust, and economically ruinous:

Reflect how you are to govern a people who think they ought to be free, and think they are not. Your scheme yields no revenue; it yields nothing but discontent, disorder, disobedience; and such is the state of America, that after wading up to your eyes in blood, you could only end just where you begun; that is, to tax where no revenue is to be found, to—my voice fails me; my inclination indeed carries me no farther—all is confusion beyond it.
Today, Burke enjoys vindication, as we see the discontent, disorder and disobedience that has already characterized the implementation of Obamacare, with its attendant regime of taxes and mandates. Unregulated institutions of economic and social life are not perfect. But they are the basis for a healthy nation. The more that government tries to fix them, the more damage it produces.