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The Hidden Libertarianism of the Challenge to the ACA

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I have some thoughts at CIF about why the challengers to the ACA simultaneously argue that the mandate isn’t a regulation of interstate commerce and is so essential to a concededly constitutionalism regulation of interstate commerce that it can’t be severed:

Why would Clement advance this self-refuting argument? It tells us two things. First of all, there is a hidden libertarian agenda behind the modest-seeming argument that the mandate and only the mandate is unconstitutional. It’s no coincidence that one of the prime movers behind the constitutional challenge to the ACA – the esteemed Georgetown Law professor, Randy Barnett – is a radical libertarian who considers most of the modern regulatory state unconstitutional. The argument against the mandate is, at bottom, a libertarian one – comparable to pre-New Deal arguments that minimum wage laws and federal pensions are unconstitutional. It is necessary to conceal this to have any chance of getting five votes at the court, but the severance argument gives away the show.

There are also political reasons for opponents of the ACA to argue that the mandate cannot be severed from the rest of the statute. American political institutions, with their high number of veto points, very strongly privilege the status quo. Striking down the whole ACA would revert us to the status quo ante, in which the privileged interests favored by Republicans would make major changes to the American healthcare system nearly impossible.

Just striking down the mandate while leaving provisions such as the ban on discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, however, would create a status quo in which insurance companies would be desperate for change because they would be faced with a vicious circle in which healthy people fled the system, leading to ever-higher costs for everyone else. Nobody can predict what kind of fix Congress would create – it would depend on subsequent elections – but the challengers of the ACA could be faced with only a half-win or even a Pyrrhic victory. So, they would prefer that the act be struck down in its entirety.

The argument is really Lochner in disguise, which can also be seen in the recycled Glenn Beck Scalia and Alito favored us with throughout the oral argument.

One more point is that I would be cautious about excessive optimism should the mandate and only the mandate be struck down.   Barring an unusual Democratic landslide or huge transformations in American politics the fix would be far more likely to be a half-assed, weaker, less equitable version of the ACA than single-payer.   But the outcome would almost certainly be better than if the bill was struck down in its entirety.

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