Early Corporate Welfare: “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen”

A friend pointed out a fascinating article on “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen[1] which the author points to as a precedent for Congress mandating health coverage for citizens of the United States.

I don’t have any disagreement with his conclusion, that the Constitution in no way prevents the government from mandating . . . well anything really, but specifically the purchase of some consumer good or service. I’m most interested by the story behind his example which is already pretty illuminating, but becomes even more so when translated from its high-school civics format into a reality-based narrative (a process I humbly think of as conferring a Zinn-like quality to the tale).

But before we get to that, one last word on the Constitution and those who believe it constrains human behavior in any way: it doesn’t. Unless the goal of drafting the Constitution was to create the largest government apparatus in human history (and as I recall, the goal was supposedly the opposite[2]–but opposite often accompanies violent solutions to problems), the piece of paper has missed its mark. A quick stroll through the Bill of Rights while simultaneously observing the interactions of the state with the citizenry should register an multitude of discrepancies across the spectrum.

On to the tale. We begin with “the founders” in 1798 . . .

During the early years of our union, the nation’s leaders realized that foreign trade would be essential to the young country’s ability to create a viable economy. To make it work, they relied on the nation’s private merchant ships – and the sailors that made them go – to be the instruments of this trade.

Zinnified: The rulers of the nascent United States were tightly tied to overseas shipping. Many of the revolutionaries had been smugglers or associated with organizations who opposed the British crown’s claim to a portion of the revenue from shipping in and out of major colonial harbors. Everyone in the political class of the time stood to benefit from increased shipping profitability, either directly as a merchant, or indirectly as one in control of the newly won power to levy taxes.

The problem was that a merchant mariner’s job was a difficult and dangerous undertaking in those days. Sailors were constantly hurting themselves, picking up weird tropical diseases, etc.
The troublesome reductions in manpower caused by back strains, twisted ankles and strange diseases often left a ship’s captain without enough sailors to get underway – a problem both bad for business and a strain on the nation’s economy.

Zinn’d: The problem is that physical laborers get hurt and decrease the workforce willing to work at a particular wage level. When the number of available workers doesn’t meet the supply required by business, business has to increase wages . . .
OR
a political solution can be sought, which, when the beneficary is the ruling class, it always is. The government built a series of hospitals to treat “injured and ailing” sailors. And who paid for the hospital system that was so obviously benefiting the shipping industry?

This government provided healthcare service was to be paid for by a mandatory tax on the maritime sailors (a little more than 1% of a sailor’s wages), the same to be withheld from a sailor’s pay and turned over to the government by the ship’s owner.

Ah, no Zinn-lation needed here. Sailors preferred to spend money on pursuits that did not directly benefit their rulers and employers (not even %1, apparently). They could not be induced to contribute to this collective endeavor voluntarily, so the monopolist of violence was called on to compel the workers to subsidize the business interest.

Here we are 200+ years later and look how fantastically this system has worked out for our rulers. So many of the things that one might expect a profitable company to pay for: medical care, retirement, and insurance for the workers; and even infrastructure and dispute resolution (courts) that almost exclusively benefit the corporate class are all paid for by the workers themselves.

The workers produce for a the military that occupies foreign countries to ensure corporate control of resources and foreign labor, which helps drive down domestic wages. They even pay for the domestic security state which protects the property of the rulers from workers who have fallen on desperate times.

The children of the workers are collateral on loans taken out and handed to the corporate class and the meager savings, where they exist, have their value driven towards zero by the creation of additional dollars that are summoned from thin air and spent by the state, typically to buy products from favored corporations.

Sooooo, yeah. Nothing groundbreaking with this particular aspect of compulsory mandate. It’s interesting that anyone even noticed, really. For anyone who is concerned that our rulers will have their plans foiled by their own courts in this matter, put aside your fears. Any setback will be extremely temporary, and the corporate-political class will carry on draining the wealth and resources of the country until it’s time for them to board a plane and flee the wreckage that their rule has created.

  1. [1] It’s funny to note that the naming-things-the-opposite-of-what-they-do scheme, popularly identified by Orwell’s 1984, extends all the way back to this act. An act that forces seaman to pay for the suppression of their own wages named an act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen. Brilliant.
  2. [2] That’s the narrative anyway. See RadGeek’s comment for the actual reasons for the creation of the Constitution, which are entirely correct
  1. yo Jad, as to this:

    “I don’t have any disagreement with his conclusion, that the Constitution in no way prevents the government from mandating . . . well anything really, but specifically the purchase of some consumer good or service.”

    That’s an odd way of stating things.

    Law students devote either a whole semester (some schools) or a whole year (others, like my alma mater) to Constitutional Law, which is focused on teasing out what the Constitution does or doesn’t permit. The US federal government –all 3 branches– have struggled since 1787 to determine what the Constitution allows and does not.

    The reason is that it’s an organic legal document, not a statutory codification or a regulatory framework. It provides notional guidelines on what the country’s government is supposed to do.

    Make a constitution too specific and you have loopholes. Example: the federal regulatory and statutory framework, circa 2011.

    Make a constitution too vague and you have eternal “interpretation” confusion, with no clear guidance on what should or should not be permitted.

    In the case of the US Constitution, we have a pretty damned vague document. So it’s not really useful to look for whether the Constitution **specifically** talks about mandating health insurance purchase.

    What’s more useful is the question of whether the Constitution allows the Federal Government to mandate any citizen act, commercial or otherwise, that isn’t harming another citizen.

    Which would require us to wonder whether the mandating of health insurance purchase is helping citizens or harming them, such as to qualify whether objecting is a harmful or beneficial thing.

    Examinations from that groundwork would be more fruitful.

    My reflexive thought: the mandating of citizen purchase of health insurance is not constitutional, because it’s not related to a rational governmental purpose, and even if it is so related, it’s not the most efficient or effective way to achieve the desired result.

    It would be a police power line of justification by Uncle Sam, and I’m not sure our jurisprudence would tolerate expanding police power that way. However, we do have a very distinctly corrupt (ideologically/jurisprudentially, I mean) Supreme Court right now, so anything could be decided, no matter what precedent would suggest.

  2. damn. errata.

    “What’s more useful is the question of whether the Constitution allows the Federal Government to mandate any citizen act, commercial or otherwise, that isn’t harming another citizen.”

    …what I mean to say there is the Q is whether it’s harmful to have to buy health insurance, or harmful to reject the mandate. Which one harms the citizenry more?

    The assumption is that it will be affordable, and will be fairly priced.

    I am certain that it won’t be affordable to many, and I am absolutely positive it will not be fairly priced In fact I am dead certain it will be inflated, wildly inflated on the price side — and the coverage given will be very circumscribed.

    It will be used, in other words, as a windfall for every health insurer and related business that can get in on the game.

    Whether it does anything good for people like me, that’s irrelevant!

    • The problem with all mandated policies is that it helps some (in this case, as you note, a subset of insurers, related businesses, and probably some people who are otherwise uninsurable under the existing state medical system) and hurts others (competing business, and anyone who wouldn’t otherwise participate but are mandated to do so). It’s not possible to draw any real conclusion about what is better for “the citizenry.” Everyone has their own experience of it.

      My barometer for the right or wrong of a social institution or its policies is, does the institution have to use force (cages, police, etc.) to make people participate in/with the policy. If the answer is yes, then the institution/policy should be highly suspect in the extreme (at the very least).

      Thanks for dropping in and for the comments!

  3. Unless the goal of drafting the Constitution was to create the largest government apparatus in human history (and as I recall, the goal was the opposite–but opposite often accompanies violent solutions to problems), the piece of paper has missed its mark.

    I don’t doubt that most of the people who drafted the Constitution would be surprised by the kind of government that has resulted, but I don’t think that their goals were “the opposite” of creating the largest government apparatus in human history. Presumably the opposite of the largest government would be the smallest government, but they weren’t aiming to create that; at the time there already was a United States government (under the Articles of Confederation), but the people involved in drafting the United States Constitution generally believed that it was too small, so they created a new Constitution specifically with the purpose of granting more extensive powers to the central government (notably powers to levy compulsory federal taxes, to regularize and administer U.S. territories for the benefit of politically-connected land speculators, and to enable the federal government to more effectively socialize the costs of enforcing the slave system. The purpose was to grow government; at the most, they didn’t recognize just how much genie there was hiding in that particular bottle.

    • Ha! Out radgeek’d by Radgeek on my own blog! I concur entirely with your point and have made a footnote and minor edit reflecting the correction. Thanks for the brilliant footnote’ing plugin btw!

  4. Law students devote either a whole semester (some schools) or a whole year (others, like my alma mater) to Constitutional Law, which is focused on teasing out what the Constitution does or doesn’t permit.

    That may be, CF, but I wonder what it is you imagine that the Constitution “protects” against. Perpetual undeclared global war? Nope. Indefinite imprisonment and/or ssassination of US citizens? Nope. Unlimited confiscation of production? Nope. The only limits the document provides seem always to correspond nearly exactly with the limit of destabilizing social unrest.

    In the case of the US Constitution, we have a pretty damned vague document.

    So it’s not really useful to look for whether the Constitution **specifically** talks about mandating health insurance purchase.

    Agreed.

    What’s more useful is the question of whether the Constitution allows the Federal Government to mandate any citizen act, commercial or otherwise, that isn’t harming another citizen.

    It certainly hasn’t stopped the Federal government’s prohibiting thousands of citizen actions that don’t harm other citizens (though I understand that’s a matter up for lawyerly sophistry–the fact is that direct harm to actual citizens is required for all the protections of the “common weal.”

    However, we do have a very distinctly corrupt (ideologically/jurisprudentially, I mean) Supreme Court right now, so anything could be decided, no matter what precedent would suggest.

    Agreed. I guess that’s my main point to Constutionalist/Minarchists: expecting the state to reliably and perpetually place voluntary restrictions on it’s own power based on a piece of paper seems like the wrong tack. That, and I just wanted to rewrite this little history lesson to reflect the basic realities of state power.

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