Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Metaphor and Health Care: On The Power to Make Metaphor Into Law

George LakoffElisabeth Wehling

Perhaps as early as today, the conservative–dominated Roberts Court will choose a metaphor that will affect millions of people and perhaps change the history of our country very much for the worse.

Back in 1978, linguists Michael Reddy and George Lakoff, working independently, demonstrated that metaphor is fundamentally a matter of thought, and that metaphorical language is secondary. Conceptual metaphors shape our understanding and can determine how we reason.  Consequently, metaphor is central to law, as Citizens United showed by making the metaphor Corporations Are Persons into a law, with vast political consequences.

Today’s likely judgment was prefigured in the 2008 Republican presidential race when Rudolph Giuliani likened health care to a flat screen tv. If you want a flat screen tv, buy one; and if you don’t have the money, go earn it. If you can’t, too bad, you don’t deserve it. The same with health care, he argued, imposing the metaphor that Health Care Is a Product.

This was a sign that conservative strategists were looking for a way to impose this metaphor.

Barack Obama helped them. He bought into that metaphor when he chose the Interstate Commerce clause as the constitutional basis of his health care act. He had an alternative — Medicare for All — since Congress has the duty to provide for the general welfare.

But Obama accepted the Health Care as Product metaphor because he wanted to regulate the insurance industry, and Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce. In doing so he fell into a conservative trap. The Interstate Commerce clause rests on the metaphor that Health Care is Product. That led to Supreme Court justices arguing that the individual mandate is forcing people to buy a product, and that, they hinted, is unconstitutional — at least 5-4 unconstitutional. The argument is that if the government can force you to buy one product, it can force you to buy any product — even broccoli.

There is another metaphor trying to get onstage — that the individual mandate levies a health care tax on all citizens, with exemptions for those with health care. The mandate wasn’t called a tax, but because money is fungible, it is economically equivalent to a tax, and so it could be metaphorically considered a tax — but only if the Supreme Decided

Where the first metaphor would effectively kill the Affordable Care Act, the second could save it. Since Congress has the power to levy taxes, the second metaphor would clearly be constitutional.

But adopting such a metaphor would open the door to other disasters, since then all fees or fines can be argued to be taxes. Conservatives are already making such arguments.

The Supreme Court is a remarkable institution. By a 5-4 vote, it can decide what metaphors we will live — or die — by. It is time recognize, and speak regularly of, the Metaphor Power of the Court, the power to make metaphors legally binding.  It is an awesome power. This is a something the press should be reporting on, legal theorists should be writing about, and all of us should be discussing. Should the Court have such a power? And if so, should there be any limits on it?

Indeed, could the Court decide whether the Metaphor Power of the Court itself is constitutional?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
George Lakoff

George Lakoff

George Lakoff is the author of The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (co-authored with Elizabeth Wehling). His previous books include Moral Politics, Don't Think of an Elephant!, Whose Freedom? and Thinking Points (with the Rockridge Institute staff). He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.

Elisabeth Wehling

Elisabeth Wehling

Elisabeth Wehling is a political strategist and author working in the US and Europe. She is co-author (with George Lakoff) of "The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic" (2012) and "Your Brain's Politics: How the Science of Mind Explains the Political Divide" (2016).

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Sanders, Top Dems Optimistic Party Will 'Come Together' for Reconciliation Package

However, House leaders warn they may miss a September 27 deadline to consider Senate-approved infrastructure legislation that progressives will only support alongside a $3.5 trillion bill.

Jessica Corbett ·

Report on Revolving Door and Tax Policy Sparks Calls for Federal Probe and Reforms

"This is an example of terrible management in the Treasury Department across multiple administrations."

Jessica Corbett ·

Nabisco Strike Ends After Union Members Approve New Contract

"Congratulations to these brave workers on their wins," said one labor writer. "May their determination and grit be an inspiration for workers everywhere."

Jessica Corbett ·

'I Had a Duty of Care': Doctor Praised for Violating Texas' New Abortion Ban

"I hope the law gets overturned," Dr. Alan Braid said, "and if this is what does it, that would be great."

Jessica Corbett ·

'Infuriating Disappointment': Biden DHS Ramping Up Deportations to Haiti

"It is unconscionable for the Biden administration to resume deportation flights to Haiti, despite the country's ongoing political, economic, and environmental disasters."

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo