Lochner and the Individual Mandate Revisited

Various defenders of the individual mandate have long argued that if the Court strikes down the law, it is likely to lead to the resuscitation of Lochner v. New York and the invalidation of a wide range of economic regulations. This meme has most recently been taken up by Jeffrey Rosen, who claims that striking down the mandate would be “resurrecting the pre–New Deal era of economic judicial activism with a vengeance.” Others have made similar claims, as I describe here.

I. Why there is no Doctrinal Connection Between Lochner and the Individual Mandate.

In reality, the individual mandate has no doctrinal connection to Lochner or any other economic liberties or property rights cases. I covered the reasons why in detail in this article (pp. 99-101). Co-blogger David Bernstein, a leading academic expert on Lochner, makes some additional relevant points here.

To briefly summarize, this case is different from Lochner for two reasons. First, Lochner restricted some types of economic regulations by the states as well as the federal government. If the Supreme Court invalidates the federal individual mandate because it is beyond the scope of congressional authority, states such as Massachusetts would remain free to adopt mandates of their own.

Second, even the federal government would still have extraordinarily broad authority to regulate actual economic transactions, including employment relationships, manufacturing, the purchase of goods and services, and so on. Congress would only be denied the power to impose mandates under the Commerce Clause in the absence of some preexisting “economic activity.” Even the Court’s most extreme previous Commerce Clause decisions – such as Gonzales v. Raich – would remain in force. I would be very happy to get rid of Raich, a dubious decision that concluded that Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce allowed it to forbid the possession of medical marijuana that had never crossed state lines or been sold in any market. But doing so isn’t necessary to strike down the mandate.

Conversely, if the Court upholds the mandate, that will in no way prevent it from strengthening enforcement of constitutional protections for economic liberties and property rights in future cases. Even if there are no enumerated powers limits to congressional authority under the Commerce Clause, that authority is still limited by the individual rights provisions of other parts of the Constitution. Many libertarians, including myself, believe that the Constitution imposes both stringent structural limitations on federal power and substantial individual rights-based ones. But it is perfectly possible for one to exist in the absence of the other. A decision upholding the individual mandate would not dictate the proper interpretation of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Thus, it would not make it any less feasible for the Court to alter the questionable second class status of property rights in current doctrine.

It also would not dictate the correct interpretation of the Due Process Clausesof the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, or the Privileges or Immunities Clause. Thus, the Court could uphold the individual mandate, yet still (in future cases) enforce these clauses’ protections for economic liberties, which as David Bernstein and others have shown, are deeply rooted in the text and original meaning of the Amendment. And even if the Court did begin to protect property rights or economic liberties more strongly, it would not necessarily go as far as the pre-1930s Court did, which itself was not nearly as far as many modern liberals imagine (the Lochner-era Court upheld far more economic regulations than it struck down).

Indeed, the case for increased enforcement of individual rights constraints on Congressional power would be stronger if the Court ruled that there are no structural limitations on its authority to impose whatever mandates it wants. And that is the likely effect of a decision upholding the mandate.

II. Lochner as Epithet and Guilt by Association.

Some of those who raise the spectre of Lochner to attack the case against the individual mandate may not have any specific legal doctrine in mind. They might simply be using Lochner as a synonym for any decision striking down “economic” laws that they think are constitutional. If that’s the case, however, then the Lochner analogy is just a political epithet rather than a serious argument – much like Republicans calling Obama a “socialist.” As David Bernstein puts it in his important recent book on Lochner, it’s yet another example of commentators using the case as a “vacuous, rhetorical shortcut” for denouncing “what [they] consider the ‘activist’ sins of their opponents” even in situations where the legal issues in question have little or no connection to either Lochner or the Fourteenth Amendment. Conservatives have often used Lochner as an epithet themselves. So it’s understandable that liberals would do the same thing. But such rhetorical ploys are not substantive arguments.

Finally, there is the notion that the case against the individual mandate is discredited by its association with “radical” libertarian arguments against various other parts of the post-New Deal legal order. Some invocations of the Lochner analogy may be intended to reinforce this meme.

David effectively dismantles such guilt by association claims here. I would add that the case against the mandate has attracted support far beyond libertarian circles, “radical” or otherwise. The anti-mandate plaintiffs include 28 state governments and many private organizations, including many who are far from libertarian. It also has the support of most of the GOP and the vast majority of the general public. As a libertarian myself, I wish it were true that all of these people had suddenly bought into a broad libertarian agenda. In reality, however, their support for the case against the mandate is mostly a result of the fact that it’s perfectly possible to conclude that this law is unconstitutional without being either libertarian or an opponent of the entire post-New Deal legal regime.

UPDATE: I have made a few slight revisions to this post in order to increase clarity and correct a typo.