Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Can the Federal Government Force Private Citizens to Buy Things?

Perhaps the most significant potential constitutional issue arising from passage of the Senate health care reform bill concerns the so-called "individual mandate," which will require nearly all Americans to purchase health insurance from some private provider. The purpose of the mandate is to reduce the adverse selection problem  that contributes significantly to rising health-care costs, as healthy folks drop insurance, leaving only the sick in insurance pools (see here).

Some are arguing that this is the first time the federal government has ever required individual Americans to purchase goods, and that it is unconstitutional. Ian Millhiser, over at Think Progress, notes that this argument would have surprised George Washington, who signed into law the Second Militia Act of 1792, which included the following provision:
[E]very citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. That the commissioned Officers shall severally be armed with a sword or hanger, and espontoon; and that from and after five years from the passing of this Act, all muskets from arming the militia as is herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound; and every citizen so enrolled, and providing himself with the arms, ammunition and accoutrements, required as aforesaid, shall hold the same exempted from all suits, distresses, executions or sales, for debt or for the payment of taxes. (Emphasis added)
Hat tip: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal 

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