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Reason Foundation

How to Oppose ObamaCare

What critics of the president's health care plan can learn from Gandhi's methods of nonviolent resistance

Shikha Dalmia
March 26, 2010

President Barack Obama came into office promising hope and change. But he might get more change than he hoped for. By foisting ObamaCare on a deeply unwilling country he might have set the stage for the largest civil disobedience movement since the civil rights era, which, if it plays its cards right, could undo his legislation and his legacy.

President Obama is betting that come November the bruising, year-long battle that he has just dragged the country through will be a distant memory. But that profoundly underestimates the dismay of a large segment of the public that sees what he signed Tuesday as a fraudulent piece of legislation based on fraudulent thinking backed by fraudulent facts enacted through a fraudulent process. (Yes, Americans do care about "process," Mr. President. It's another name for representative government.)

President Obama tried for a year to convince the country that the cure for rising health care costs and the swelling ranks of the uninsured was a de facto government takeover of the health care system—only to be rebuffed in poll after poll. And if there was any doubt as to where the public stood, it was put to rest by Republican Scott Brown's stunning December victory in Massachusetts, the land of Big Government.

But instead of backing down President Obama went for broke using tactics more reprehensible than the "business as usual politics" that he had pledged to change when he came to office.

First, there were the budgetary magic tricks that he and his Congressional enablers got the highly respected Congressional Budget Office to perform. The last CBO assessment—that pushed the bill through—showed that the Obama plan would reduce the federal deficit by $138 billion over 10 years. The reality, once all the double counting and fantasy savings are eliminated, is that it will add $562 billion.

But the CBO is not the only entity whose honor Democrats have violated—perhaps beyond repair. Federal taxpayers will also get royally screwed when they have to pay for all the sweetheart deals that Obama's Cogressional minions cut behind closed doors and whose true scope will only become apparent in the coming months. (Bart Stupak is rumored to have gotten $700,000 for airport repairs as his sell-out price.)

Worst of all were the shameless parliamentary tactics that Democrats deployed. The Founders deliberately constructed many roadblocks for new laws to prevent elected officials from straying too far from the will of the people. But Democrats could care less about parliamentary niceties.

They are poised to use the so-called nuclear option or "reconciliation" to square the House and the Senate bills. This option will allow the Senate to circumvent the normal committee process to make fixes to the House bill through a simple majority without risking a filibuster. But reconciliation is meant exclusively for budgetary matters—not ramrodding sweeping social legislation on a party-line vote. This is why the Senate parliamentarian—a completely nonpartisan figure—has to approve its use for every fix. But Democrats are poised to have Vice President Joe Biden overrule him should he dare to stand in their way. In short, instead of bending the cost curve, President Obama is bending the rules of accountable government.

It is hardly surprising then that Americans are feeling a growing panic as they watch their constitutional republic descend into a banana republic. President Obama is fond of quoting Mahatma Gandhi's line that "we should be the change we want to see." But Gandhi also said that "civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless and corrupt." Americans instinctively understand this which is why pockets of resistance to ObamaCare are already emerging. The question is only whether they can be constructively harnessed into a grassroots, Gandhi-style civil disobedience movement powerful enough to undo this monstrosity.

The prerequisites for any movement's success are credible leaders and a moral high ground. The first means that opponents of ObamaCare cannot—cannot—let Mitt Romney come within sniffing distance of their cause. He is trying to position himself at the forefront of the Repeal ObamaCare movement to further his presidential ambitions. But he couldn't be a worse spokesman given that as governor he was responsible for implementing a universal coverage program in the Bay State that is identical in every essential respect to ObamaCare, including the individual mandate. He has to be banished from every anti-ObamaCare panel, podium and platform lest the movement be accused of partisanship and hypocrisy.

As for maintaining the moral high ground, ObamaCare opponents have to be very careful when invoking rhetoric from the revolutionary period. Tea Partiers quote the Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson who said that the "tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants." But any hint of violence—even inadvertent—will compromise their cause because there are crucial differences between our colonial and current rulers. The colonial rulers were monarchs who used violence to extract taxes from Americans to enrich themselves and their motherland. But Democrats are imposing mandates to force Americans to do something for their own alleged good—and taxes to redistribute wealth among Americans. This is wrong and completely at odds with the spirit of American freedom and self-reliance. But the Repeal ObamaCare movement can only succeed if it convinces potential beneficiaries of redistributionist policies of the rightness of its cause.

This can't be done by threatening a civil war—even metaphorically—against them. Gandhi's ahimsa—or nonviolent resistance that seeks to change minds by a firm and calm expression of one's own conscience—is a far better strategy.

To this end, the perpetrators of ObamaCare must be defeated in November and 2012. But right now it is entirely appropriate for Senate Republicans to stall the reconciliation process as much as possible. They are right in calling every point of order that they can—if only to call attention to the bill's manifest corruption. Likewise, the 30-plus states that are issuing sovereignty resolutions and exploring ballot initiatives that would protect their residents from Uncle Sam's coverage diktat are on the right track. Even if these efforts are ultimately thrown out in court because federal law trumps state law, they will make a powerful statement against the coercive nature of ObamaCare.

But the lawsuits that have a shot at sticking in court are the ones that various attorney generals around the country are preparing under the Constitution's commerce clause. This clause gives the federal government expansive powers to regulate interstate commercial activity. But it has never before been invoked to force Americans to purchase a product as a condition of lawful residence in this country. This crosses a line that might well make five Supreme Court justices balk.

Any strategy of nonviolent civil resistance has to first make a good faith effort to achieve its end through the available political and legal means. But there comes a time when changing the law requires acts of conscience.

For opponents of ObamaCare that time is Dec. 31, 2013. That's when the individual mandate will go into effect. If ObamaCare hasn't been repealed by Congress or nullified in court by then, its opponents would be justified in urging Americans to refuse to buy coverage or pay fines and dare authorities to come after them.

By some estimates, Uncle Sam will need to hire an additional 17,000 IRS agents or so just to enforce the coverage mandate. But even if a few million Americans simultaneously refuse to abide by it, they could easily overwhelm the system. Self-rule or swaraj, Gandhi said, requires a collective understanding of the immense capacity of citizens to "regulate and control" the coercive apparatus of the state through mass nonviolent resistance.

President Obama and his fellow Democrats are counting on this resistance petering out. That could happen. But it will be a lot easier for opponents to maintain this zeal in the age of social networking. Facebook already has numerous groups with millions of members demanding the repeal of ObamaCare. It won't be impossible to mobilize enough of them when the denouement arrives.

After all, this issue is not just about the fate of an industry. It is about maintaining control over basic decisions about one's own life and health. The stakes are too high to let ObamaCare stand.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a biweekly columnist at Forbes. This article orininally appeared at Forbes. This column previously appeared at Reason.com.


Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst


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