Obamacare opponents are pushing a narrow definition of “freedom” that works only for billionaires and big corporations. (More)

obamacare freedom

With a core portion of the Affordable Care Act taking effect on October 1 when the health care exchanges start signing people up for health insurance coverage, right-wing Republicans in Congress along with conservative advocacy organizations are desperately seeking to undermine President Obama’s landmark legislative achievement. The right-wing effort consists of three steps, as described in a recent New York Times article:

Across the country, Republicans are eager to prevent people from enrolling, fearing that once people begin receiving the benefit they will be loath to give it up. And in Washington, lawmakers have cast the law as the evil villain in a legislative melodrama about the budget that is barreling toward another government shutdown.

One group called Generation Opportunity distributed a Web video last week showing a creepy-looking Uncle Sam peering between a woman’s legs at a gynecologist’s office.

“Don’t let government play doctor,” the video says at the end. “Opt out of Obamacare.”

The anti-Obamacare effort illustrates well just how far today’s conservative movement has fallen. The advertisements from groups such as Generation Opportunity are nothing more than lies – Obamacare is about increasing access to affordable health insurance, not having “government play doctor.” The GOP’s threat to shut the government down and/or default on our debts by refusing to increase the debt limit, pose significant short and long term threats to our economic vitality and standing in the world. And the organized effort by conservatives to get people to not obtain health insurance is simply despicable.

Perhaps the most disingenuous part of this conservative attack on the Affordable Care Act is that it is being portrayed as being about protecting freedom. For example, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) says Obamacare is the “greatest assault on freedom in our lifetime.” Fox “News” contends that there are at least five freedoms that are threatened by Obamacare. And a primary lead in the anti-Obamacare effort is the misleadingly-named organization “FreedomWorks.”

The claim that the Affordable Care Act is a massive attack on freedom is part of an absurdly simplistic conservative view that assumes that any increase in government inherently equates to a decrease in freedom. For example, in an essay at Forbes arguing that Obamacare will reduce the U.S.’s freedom ranking compared to other countries, the author contends that:

Most readers understand intuitively that government spending reduces the economic freedom and opportunity of individuals: every dollar spent by Uncle Sam using taxes paid involuntarily is one less dollar available in the private sector to be freely spent in voluntary exchange. As government spending continues to increase, individual freedom inevitably shrinks accordingly.

Similarly, the charts accompanying this essay from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing “think tank” based in Michigan, graphically illustrate the conservative view that on issues such as education, energy, and welfare, more government automatically means less freedom and vice versa.

But this view that freedom is simply a binary choice between more and less government has little connection to reality. Freedom is defined as the ability to act, think, and speak without restraint or hindrance. And it is readily apparent that there are many things besides government that restrict people’s freedom, and there are many things that government can do to increase freedom even in the face of those other threats. Unchecked corporate power can undermine personal freedom, just as deprivation and need can. And, conversely, increased opportunity, which can be promoted by government action, can lift the restraints and hindrances that poverty can place on people’s ability to act.

Examples abound. For example, if unregulated air pollution gives you emphysema, lung cancer, or premature death, your ability to act is hindered. But government regulations can require such pollution to be drastically reduced, thereby reducing such restrictions on freedom. Similarly, a child who grows up malnourished and without access to good education will almost certainly not have the same opportunities to act that a child who grows up with plenty will likely have.

Contrary to the conservative anti-Obamacare mantra, health care reform is actually a great example of how government action can increase freedom. Before Obamacare, health insurance companies almost always denied coverage to individuals who had a preexisting condition. As a result, people who have health insurance through the employers often found themselves unable to change jobs, or to try to start their own business, for fear of losing such coverage. Thanks to Obamacare, however, such preexisting condition exclusions will disappear in 2014, thereby freeing people to make job decisions without significant fears about losing health insurance coverage. Similarly, before Obamacare, more than 50 million Americans lacked health insurance coverage, leading to nearly 45,000 unnecessary deaths per year and untold economic hardship for people who go bankrupt or have to spend their entire savings to pay for health care that they do not have insurance for. Obamacare is projected to provide health insurance coverage to 32 million more Americans, greatly reducing the obvious restrictions on freedom caused by death or bankruptcy. In short, the Affordable Care Act will greatly increase the freedom of the tens of millions or more Americans who lack health insurance coverage, struggle to pay for insurance or care, or have to stay in a job they do not like in order to maintain coverage.

The simple fact is that government and freedom are not diametrically opposed. Certainly unchecked and oppressive government can and has unreasonably restricted personal freedoms. But government also can increase and has increased freedom by limiting the ability of corporations and individuals to restrict other people’s freedom, by reducing levels of deprivation that hinder people’s ability to act, and by providing education and other opportunities that broaden the range of actions people can choose to take. The question is how to balance all of these competing factors in a way that increases freedom overall. And the answer to that is far more nuanced than the false notion that government and freedom are always in conflict.

72 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his Four Freedoms speech, in which he set forth “four essential human freedoms” – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Today, conservatives are offering an agenda that amounts to little more than providing people with the “freedom” to not have health insurance coverage. In other words, for the vast majority of Americans, conservatives are not offering anything resembling freedom at all.