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The Individual Mandate Isn’t Really a ‘Tax’

Viewing the individual mandate as a tax only makes sense if you think penalties for littering, speeding, or engaging in other irresponsible behavior are also “taxes.”

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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.

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.

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