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Can the Federal Government Make You Buy Broccoli?

February 1, 2017

So in our pieces on the Affordable Care Act, I've mercifully avoided discussing the various court cases on the topic. But I was thinking about one of them this morning and had a bit of a mental breakthrough.

 

The most important case on the Affordable Care Act was NFIB v. Sebelius. It was a complex case with several parts, but the most important question was whether the Federal Government had the power to force (or coerce) people to buy health insurance. In Volume 4, we showed that an individual mandate is a feature in every successful private health insurance. But our government has limited powers, and just because something is important doesn't mean it can be done.

 

During the oral argument, Justice Scalia asked Doug Vermilli (who was representing the government) whether the government had the power to force people to buy broccoli. A classic Supreme Court construct, Scalia was trying to determine where the limit would be if government power was taken to an extreme level. Vermilli, whose performance at NFIB was shaky, talked about fundamental differences between the health insurance and broccoli markets, so the power to enforce health insurance mandates didn't extend to broccoli. But Vermilli was wrong.

 

In World War 2, the markets for many "normal" goods broke down (or threatened to). The increased demand due to the armed forces along with the reduced supply from the absence of various types of labor threatened to create inflation that would have been crippling. The government responded by creating a system of rationing, to ensure that basic necessities were properly distributed to civilians after a significant portion was taken to supply the troops. Sure, they didn't say specifically that people were forced to buy broccoli, but by strictly limiting many items, rationing effectively forced Americans to buy many products they otherwise did not want. I am not aware of a court ruling on wartime rationing, but I would say that this is because nobody doubted its legality given the circumstances.

 

If the market breaks down, the government can definitely force you to buy broccoli.

 

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