The Roberts Court v. America
How the Roberts Supreme Court is using the First Amendment to craft a radical, free-market jurisprudence.
For all these reasons, the First Amendment has helped the Supreme Court do for the consumer capitalism of the Information Age what freedom of contract did for the Industrial Age: constitutionally protect certain transactions that lie at the core of the economy. This makes unequal economic power much harder for democratic lawmaking to reach, because there are only a few ways to reduce the effects of economic inequality: redistribute wealth, guarantee certain goods (such as education or health care) regardless of wealth, and limit what the wealthy can do with their money. Constitutional protection of marketing and spending takes the last option off the table at a time when the other two are politically embattled. Whether in elections or in marketing and the vast data economy behind it, the market itself, with all its inequality, is ever more thoroughly constitutionalized as a realm of freedom.
This development is a milestone in the Court’s march away from a principle that it accepted with the New Deal: Buying and selling enjoy no special constitutional status, and legislatures can regulate markets and businesses to make life more equitable, safe, or healthful. When these policy decisions are opened to constitutional attack, the wealthy interests burdened by legislation can appeal from the political process to the Supreme Court. If they win, they send lawmakers back to square one, and, win or lose, they delay regulation and raise its costs. Moreover, these cases give wealthy interests a rhetorical leg up: They can denounce regulation as “censorship” with the Supreme Court and the Constitution behind them.
Health-Care Reform and Nanny-State Hysteria
Nominally, the courts that have found some or all of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) unconstitutional are ruling on the limits of Congress’s authority to regulate the economy. Near the heart of these opinions, though, is the idea that the Constitution must protect, even indirectly, the autonomy of the consumer deciding how to spend her money. Although this is a very weak constitutional argument, it is revealing: It shows that the judiciary’s turn against a law that would have been uncontroversial not long ago is part of the intellectual taste for a laissez-faire consumer capitalism.
The federal courts’ sharply divided judgments on the constitutionality of health-care reform, and the dawning realization that the Supreme Court will likely take the constitutional challenge seriously, make this a strange moment, and one that might be momentous. The argument against the ACA that two federal district courts and one appeals court have accepted at the time of writing is that Congress lacks power to require individuals to buy insurance—the so-called “individual mandate” that is designed to put young and old, healthy and sick alike into the insurance pool. The Constitution assigns Congress a limited set of powers, and, in theory, it cannot act outside those. Therefore, Congress always faces two sets of constraints. It cannot do some things because those things are forbidden by rights-protecting language like the First Amendment, and others because, although they are not prohibited, they are not authorized by the Constitution’s list of Congress’s powers. The ACA’s opponents argue that the individual mandate violates the latter principle.
Congress’s go-to power for 70 years, since the Supreme Court embraced the New Deal, has been the power “to regulate commerce…among the several states,” generally just called the Commerce Clause. Although the bare language would seem to support a narrow reading of the power, the Court has interpreted it to authorize nearly any legislation that touches on economic activity, even very tenuously, such as the federal ban on home production of medical marijuana for personal use (in 2007’s Raich v. Gonzales). But on the ACA, three federal courts have pleased conservative activists by holding that Congress cannot require people to buy insurance. The general principle of these cases is that the Commerce power does not authorize Congress to require people to make purchases, or perhaps to take any affirmative act at all, in a field of economic life that they have not already voluntarily joined. Become a farmer, the argument goes, and you may be subject to all kinds of regulations, quotas, and so forth. The initial choice to enter the field means taking on its regulatory burdens. But a passive citizen, just by being, has done nothing to subject herself to the insurance mandate. Once she enters the field of health-care consumption, courts have conceded, she could be required to buy insurance; but as long as, like Winnie-the-Pooh, she just is, Congress cannot reach her.
This argument is strange, notwithstanding that federal judges have signed on to it. Strictly speaking, it addresses the limits of federal power. Nonetheless, its rhetorical force comes from appeals to the autonomy of the consumer and warnings that a runaway Congress might violate that autonomy. Courts overturning the individual mandate invariably invoke dark fantasies of a paternalistic government requiring citizens to buy American cars, health-club memberships, or vegetables. What’s strange about this parade of nanny-state specters is that, because the Commerce Clause concerns the powers of Congress, not the rights of individuals, a ruling that invalidates the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause simply means that only state governments, not the federal government, can pass such a law. Famously, Massachusetts has already done just that.
There is really no such thing as a constitutionally protected personal liberty that a state can violate but the federal government cannot, or vice versa. The Constitution protects individual rights against all government action, regardless of the source (with a handful of minor exceptions that are not relevant here). The Commerce Clause governs federal but not state power because it is not a rights-protecting clause. The odd thing about the anti-ACA cases is that they proceed as if they were vindicating a constitutional right of consumer liberty, but the Constitution has not been interpreted as securing economic rights since the Supreme Court rejected Lochner. Opponents’ Commerce Clause arguments are displaced Lochner-ism.
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