Paul Krugman is the latest to suggest that advocates of personal Social Security accounts are guilty of hypocrisy in criticizing the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual insurance mandate. After all, they contend, are not personal account supporters arguing in favor of a federal government mandate that individuals purchase a specific commercial product (i.e., stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or whatever)?
No doubt, there is a superficial similarity. But the analogy significantly misses what personal account proponents are calling for. If there was no current Social Security program and the government were simply to mandate that individuals purchase some form of commercial retirement savings product, that would indeed be analogous to the health insurance mandate, and would be unconstitutional for the same reasons. However, Americans are currently paying a Social Security payroll tax. What personal account advocates propose is simply a tax credit against that tax if individuals contribute to a personal account. That the credit would be equal to the size of the contribution is structurally irrelevant.
The government uses credits to incentivize behavior all the time. For example, it offers a tax credit for the purchase of the Chevy Volt. That may be bad policy, but it is generally agreed to be constitutionally permissible. It is, however, very different from a mandate that every American buy a Volt. Similarly, Congress would have been on much stronger constitutional ground if it had imposed a tax on all Americans to fund uncompensated care, and then offered a credit to anyone who obtained insurance. The same individuals would end up paying the penalty/tax as under Obamacare, but the structure would have been less offensive to the Constitution. The federal government clearly has the power to tax, and it can offer tax credits and deductions. Congress chose not to do it that way for political reasons—they didn’t want to be accused of raising taxes. But political expediency does not justify an unprecedented expansion of federal power.
And, while on the subject of Social Security, it should be noted that several individual mandate defenders—including Justice Ginsburg—have likened it to Social Security, saying that if the government can make us participate in Social Security, why can’t it make us buy health insurance? But in the case of Helvering v. Davis, the Supreme Court ruled that Social Security was constitutional precisely because it was not insurance and did not require citizens to buy a product. Rather, the Court held that the Social Security tax was simply a tax, authorized by the Constitution’s taxing power. Social Security benefits are simply a government spending program, authorized under the General Welfare clause, and unrelated to the tax itself. As the Court pointed out, “The proceeds of both the employee and employer taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way.” One may disagree with the Court’s expansive interpretation of the General Welfare clause in this case, but it clearly distinguishes Social Security (and Medicare or even a single-payer health care system) from the individual mandate constitutionally.
Some might say that these distinctions are just quibbles or nit-picking. But how government does things matters. Constitutional limits are there for a reason. We are, after all, a government of laws, not of men.