The Individual Mandate And Right-Wing Hysteria: A Follow-Up

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JONATHAN CHAIT DECEMBER 16, 2010

The Individual Mandate And Right-Wing Hysteria: A Follow-Up

Conor Friedersdorf objects to my post about the individual mandate

What does worry me is the notion that the federal government is no longer an entity of enumerated powers – that a limit on its scope purposefully established by the Founders no longer exists. It used to be a check and balance. Is it now completely gone?

If Judge Hudson’s ruling is upheld, I’ll celebrate not because I fear Obamacare – I’m cynical enough to suspect that whatever came next might well make me even worse off – but because a limit on federal power that I care about generally has been re-asserted.

Should his ruling be overturned, I’ll be disappointed because the precedent troubles me: if the commerce clause can prevent me from growing marijuana in my backyard and mandate that I buy a particular kind of health insurance that covers far more than emergency room care, what Congressional action can’t it cover?  

Let me try to reiterate my point.

The legal merits of Hudson's ruling, which seem to be totally daft, are themselves piggybacked upon a policy argument which is itself highly unpersuasive at best. The political argument, endorsed by Friedersdorf, maintains that the individual mandate represents some dramatic new imposition of Congressional power. Congress's power may have grown over the years, the argument holds, but the individual mandate represents some new frontier of intrusiveness. It is forbidding an activity (or inactivity) that is more personal and less intertwined with the economy as a whole than almost any previous regulation. It is not dramatically different than a law requiring people to eat broccoli.

But this is totally incorrect. In reality, the individual mandate is much less intrusive and paternalistic than many regulations accepted as Constitutional. The rationale isn't to make people buy insurance because it's good for them. If people want to accept the risk of illness on their own, that's fine. The issue is precisely that they can't do this without forcing the rest of us to pick up the tab when they 1) show up at the emergency room, or 2) decide to buy private insurance in a now-regulated market.

Regulations to prevent people from offloading their risks onto others are extremely common and extremely necessary. So, again, the right's portrayal of this as a dramatic expansion of the scope of Congressional action is wildly misleading, and it owes itself not to any sober analysis of federal power but to the psychology of reaction.

Now, Friedersdorf is correct to point out that some libertarians who are not partisan Republicans have endorsed this argument as well. In my view this is a group of people who are deeply inclined to support limited government, and have latched onto an argument in favor of limited government that has gained a political foothold without subjecting the merits of the case to serious scrutiny. They think the case is about drawing a new line against the expansion of Congressional economic power, when in fact the line is far behind the old one.

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posted in: jonathan chait, conor friedersdorf, hudson

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