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Words Matter

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Matt Miller includes himself among those “who think the health security the Affordable Care Act provides marks a fundamental advance in America’s social contract” (“Obamacare’s well-insured critics,” Nov. 6).

Mr. Miller needs a refresher on the definition of “contract.”

A contract binds only those parties who voluntarily agree to be bound by its provisions.  Central to this definition of “contract” is the presumption that all parties to the contract know the provisions to which they agree.  But because Obamacare passed without a single favorable vote of the opposition party, because it passed by a narrow margin in the House of Representatives, and because even some of Obamacare’s enthusiastic Congressional supporters admitted that they did not know all of the provisions of the bill, to call Obamacare part of a “social contract” is a dishonest attempt to clothe that legislation with a legitimacy that it does not possess.

Unchecked political majorities often run roughshod over minorities – forcing, in each case, the minority to obey the majority’s commands (rather than, as with true contracts, bargaining with parties who remain free to refuse any and all contractual offers).  No realistic person doubts this regrettable reality.  Please, though, let’s not perfume up and glorify such exercises of raw majoritarian power by calling their outcomes clauses of a “social contract.”

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030