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Why The Government Can't Do Everything

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Last weekend, President Obama allowed that we voters are too scared right now to "think clearly," but let us gut up and try anyway, shall we? We really can't sort out too often the stakes in this election, including possibly the most important matter of all: whether the federal government can do anything it decides to.

So first, for courage, a few slugs of Old Be Joyful; then we'll contemplate what goes on in the ObamaCare lawsuit that a federal judge in Florida said last week should proceed to trial, the perfervid arguments of the Justice Department notwithstanding.

Twenty states are challenging the supposed mandate to buy health insurance. The Justice Department says the requirement is a tax only. Congress has the power to tax, right? What's the problem?

The problem for the 20 states is attempted federal overreach into the lives of those individual Americans the government wants to "tax" in the interest of universalizing health care. A requirement to buy something, the states contend, isn't a "tax" within the meaning of the Constitution. The judge finds that argument worthy of consideration. On with the trial, he commands. Let the government present its evidence, the states theirs, and we'll see about all this.

The question here is in one crucial sense about health care, but it is in fact about much more than that. It concerns the federal government's claimed entitlement to instruct us concerning the decisions we make about caring for our health. It is possible, no doubt, to claim that ObamaCare, as enacted last spring by Congress, is so wonderful a thing no one should miss out on it. It is another matter entirely to suggest that the end here justifies the means. That's to say because ObamaCare is wonderful/marvelous/you name it, you and you and you should be made to buy into it.

That kind of assertion gives off the odor of tyranny -- a prospect worse, I hope we can agree, than gaps in health insurance coverage. The U.S. Constitution was designed to prevent, among things, tyranny. It specifies with some care and also, yes, with some reasonable ambiguity just what government can do and what it can't do. Among other things government can do, as we all know, is tax. Thus the government (according to the Justice Department) says it can require you to buy insurance and -- if you don't do so -- "tax" you for your stupidity.

Really? How could we have supposed all this time that a tax was a levy on income or consumption -- on a positive activity, that's to say? We suddenly find it's about non-activity: of which there's a lot in this old world. So Congress and the president tax you for non-purchase of insurance. Why not for non-membership in a gym intended to slim down our population of 300-pound pre-diabetics? Once you start grooving on "good ideas," you can command a whole lot of stuff to get done, or not get done, never mind the spirit of limited government that once underlay the Constitution.

No genius can figure out what government could do "for us" if it really tried. Easier to figure is what it might instead do "to us" once it really decided to save us: narrowing choices, curtailing the varied freedoms of action Americans still enjoy. That's why there's this lawsuit in Florida (as in other venues), where the wait-a-cotton-picking-minute spirit has Our Protectors at least momentarily on the defensive.

The upcoming election is about jobs, Lord, yes, and about a lot of other things as well. It's mainly, though -- due to the Obama administration's salivating love of Big Government -- about freedom. The voters may have a lesson in mind for our federal keepers and overseers. That lesson: climb down a ways off our backs. No one pretends we're about to demolish every federal program instituted since Andy Jackson. We might do something actually more fitting: Serve notice on the powerful that power, in a democracy, has limits, and that those who ignore those limits ... well, let's just say we may find out soon.

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