Harvard law professor Noah Feldman opines that U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli ”faltered” yesterday when Supreme Court justices asked whether the Obama administration’s claim that the Constitution empowers Congress to force people to purchase health insurance contains any limiting principle. Put differently, if the power “To regulate commerce…among the several States” allows the government to force you to buy health insurance, can the government also force you to buy broccoli?
Feldman laments that Verrilli’s “failure to offer a sharp distinction could be disastrous for the government’s case,” but assures us, “There is a good, sharp answer to this wholly reasonable question.” Here is the preface to Feldman’s answer:
[W]hen it comes to the strange and unusual case of health insurance, inaction causes the whole market to break down. By not buying health insurance, the healthiest person is depriving everyone of a public good. By sitting on their hands — and acting rationally — people who do not purchase insurance are unintentionally causing the market to fail.
One problem here is that if Congress can compel you to buy something whenever not buying it would deprive someone else of a public good, then Congress can also force you to purchase — not just tax and provide to you, but force you to purchase — tanks, fighter jets, and military bases; lighthouses; software; fireworks displays; e-books; comparative-effectiveness research (or really any type of research); a subscription to Consumer Reports; landscaping services; parks; rare and endangered species; street lights; et cetera ad nauseam. That isn’t much of a limiting principle.
Another problem is that economists use the term ”market failure” to describe a situation where one or more features of a free market cause that market to fall short of the efficiency-maximizing outcome. Feldman misuses it to mean, “This market isn’t doing what I want.” That is not market failure. Nor is it much of a limiting principle. If the Commerce Clause empowered Congress to force people to buy things to correct every perceived shortcoming in every market, Congress’ powers would be without limit. Even worse, Feldman doesn’t even bother identify whether the outcome he deplores is caused by some feature of a free market or government intervention (see below).