A Mandate is a Tax is a Penalty: The Politics of Semantics
by Barbara_Donnelly_Lane
July 06, 2012 11:02 AM | 2700 views | 0 0 comments | 114 114 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Benjamin Lee Whorf was an American linguist who put forth the principle of linguistic relativity.  Basically, he believed the structure of a language shapes how a speaker thinks.  His thesis has been contradicted to an extent by the work of men like Noam Chomsky, but writers and politicians innately understand—it is impossible to argue—that words in general have shifting emotional associations, which influence how people react to arguments.

This is relevant because, while the Supreme Court has deemed the only way to view the individual mandate as constitutional is to view it as a tax, there is a reason President Obama did not present it as a tax in the first place and still insists the mandate is a penalty. 

In the grand scheme, this is all very puzzling, and the linguistic nature of the debate has become most interesting to geeks like me who are in love with the nuances of the English language. 

To expound on that debate, I go to my handy-dandy dictionary.

A tax is 1) a sum of money demanded by a government for its support or for specific facilities or services, levied upon incomes, property, sales, etc., 2) a burdensome charge, obligation, duty, or demand. 

A mandate is a 1) command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative, 2) a command from a superior court or official to a lower one, 3) an authoritative order or command. 

A penalty is 1) a punishment established by law or authority for a crime or offense, 2) something, especially a sum of money, required as a forfeit for an offense, 3) the disadvantage or painful consequences resulting from an action or condition. 

When analyzing Chief Justice Robert’s ruling with these definitions, I can accept that the individual “mandate,” which was never popular with the electorate, is simply a sum of money demanded by the government to support its new healthcare behemoth.  It is a burdensome charge on those who do not buy healthcare but who will use healthcare services.  Therefore, it is a tax on healthcare.

Additionally, I can understand the requirement to pay this tax isn’t a “mandate,” because, according to our Supreme Court, our government cannot within the bounds of the Constitution order or command citizens to buy a private product.

(Yes, friends, there is a difference between “demand” and “command.”)

Additionally, if the “mandate” is then simply a “penalty” instead of a “tax” as President Obama continues to claim, I must assume not buying healthcare is a crime or offense.  This implies the government can “mandate” that all people buy healthcare, which we’ve already determined is unconstitutional at the federal level based on the meaning of “mandate.” 

Perhaps the Obama administration would then use a dictionary to argue with me that the penalty is simply the disadvantage or painful consequence resulting from an action or condition, but one has to engage in a certain amount of Orwellian “double think” to make this case because not buying health insurance is certainly an inaction, and the only condition required of a person on which this penalty is levied is existing. 

Aren’t semantics fun?

Besides, if one wishes to substitute the word “penalty” for “tax,” a Pandora’s box is opened to obfuscate the negative connotations of these words.

For example, if we call the healthcare penalty a “tax,” it is clear to voters that President Obama blatantly broke his promise to not raise taxes on the middle class. 

This is true because people who don’t have healthcare are not normally the folks who make over $200,000 a year.  They also aren’t poor, or they’d qualify for Medicaid.   They are in the middle-income bracket, often young and starting out in life.  Therefore, no matter how you look at it, a lot of people in the middle class will see a hike in their taxes.

President Obama knows this, so whatever he thought about the individual mandate before the ruling, he’s now misleading voters because it’s not politically expedient to accept what he has made is a tax.  

Of course, I must address the assertion that relies on the hope that only a small portion of people will have to pay this tax, so it’s a “half truth” to assert President Obama is doing exactly what he said he wouldn’t do: levying a major tax on people he promised to leave alone.  When it doesn’t impact a lot of people, it’s really more like a penalty levied on folks who should be giving their fair share anyway, right?

Okay.  So let’s go with these parameters when looking at another taxing scenario and see if this logic works politically.

According to the 2012 Index of Dependence on Government, a full half of the American population doesn’t pay any federal income tax.   Therefore, can we agree income taxes are only levied on some citizens, right? 

Well, in that case, let’s substitute the word “tax” with the word “penalty.”  Only half of the people in the United States must pay an “income penalty” to the federal government.  These people pay this penalty because they have been financially successful.  Clearly, these people are being penalized for their financial success. 

Per this logic, I suppose the income penalty payers should aspire to invest less, make less, do less, and avoid punishment from the government in the future.  They should try to fit into that group who doesn’t pay a penalty—yet reaps the benefits of all the programs that income taxes support—because making a good income is an offense in this country.  It’s only fair to make those people have a painful consequence for being productive, right?

Do you see how sometimes a “penalty” is worse than a “tax” regardless of how many people pay it?     Can you see why politicians like to splice meanings to lead you to only their conclusions?  Conversely, the “tax” in the ACA has bad optics.

Now, I won’t lie and say I like the Affordable Care Act, and I would have preferred the ruling go with the dissent that would have killed it. But I can understand how judges much smarter than me were able to conclude that the individual mandate is something other than what it was said to be because a thing is its definition.  I can accept President Obama has levied a new tax. 

You should ask yourself, why can’t Democrats? 

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