Individual Mandates

Is there a limit to Federal authority under our Constitution?  Large government advocates like to think not, instead relying on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to justify sweeping expansion of Congressional authority.  Most notably, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed by Congress requires individuals to purchase insurance or face a penalty.  To his credit, Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Florida ruled that the states “had a plausible claim” when they challenged the “individual mandate” outlined in the in Affordable Care Act.  What is that claim?

Philosophically, that claim is simple: Individuals get to choose how to run their economic lives.  Until the refreshing resurgence of limited-government thought recently, we had strayed so far from these bedrock ideals that they were scarcely recognized by most people.  They may have scratched their heads or even beefed in private about the never-ending expansion of federal authority, but they did not take to the streets.  This time, things are different.  Ordinary citizens are asking why they should be forced to purchase something they do not want for reasons that are worse than dubious.

Of course, it is not enough to claim that ACA offends reason.  Were that the case, roughly 97% of current federal law would be removed from the books.  Is it Constitutional?  There is the real question.  Judge Vinson’s ruling focuses on a fairly narrow question: Can Congress, per its power to regulate interstate commerce, require someone to participate in an economic activity?  Take special note that we are not talking about regulating an activity, but requiring it.

The Commerce Clause has long been (ab)used to justify regulating everything from guns to marijuana growing.  I will not belabor that silliness here.  However, the ACA raises an entirely different issue.  By requiring citizens to purchase insurance or be fined, Congress is essentially saying that there are no meaningful limits to federal power.  All may be justified by appealing to its duly granted power over economic transactions among states.  To wit, could Congress:

  • Require the purchase of vegetables, arguing that eating more would reduce health insurance claims?
  • Make it mandatory for individuals to buy new autos because it would help automakers and create jobs?
  • Require citizens to purchase guns, arguing that they are necessary to the security of the nation?

It is not hard to come up with “interstate commerce” arguments to support each of those.  People who are now fuming about the 20 states that have filed the suit Judge Vinson is considering should ask themselves the following question.  If a law were passed that required you to purchase something you did not want or were against morally (say, guns), would you apply the Commerce Clause differently?  Would you argue that it was unconstitutional?  If the answer is yes, reconsider your support for the individual mandate.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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