The Unhappy Triumph of the Marketplace

Liberals are right about pervasiveness of marketplace—and that’s sad.


This objection to Obamacare's individual mandate, by Jonathan Adler at the libertarian Volokh Conspiracy website, grabbed my attention:

"Virtually everyone" may acquire health care—but "virtually everyone" is not "everyone."  Most people may purchase health care at some point in their lives, but some will not. Some people will refuse to purchase health care for religious reasons. Some will not purchase health care because they are lucky enough not to need such care before a sudden death. Still others may decide not to purchase health care because they have chosen to remove themselves from commerce—consider a survivalist or other person who decides to live in a shack, growing their own food, and not engaging in commerce with others.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Consider Adler's latter example: It strikes me that the vast majority of Americans would find the idea of "not engaging in commerce with others" to be exotically countercultural at best, possibly antisocial or even deviant. Such a reaction is symptomatic of the fact that the marketplace has long enjoyed pride of place in Americans' moral psychology. "The chief business of the American people is business," as President Calvin Coolidge famously said.

This ethos has made proper small-l liberals of us, hasn't it? Americans have been taught by the libertarian right and the Clintonian middle to believe that a commercial relationship between nations—trade—is the only way to achieve lasting international harmony. At least before the great stock market crash of 2008, CEOs were like cult heroes in the popular imagination. From the pluckiness of Horatio Alger's heroes to the theology of Joel Osteen, success in the marketplace has been seen as an outward confirmation of inward virtue and divine blessedness.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Supreme Court Overturn Obama's Healthcare Law?]

So it's with some sense of schadenfreude that I see conservatives of the classical liberal variety chafing at the requirement to buy health insurance, calling it an attempt by Congress to "create commerce." I'm fully aware of the contractarian basis for this objection: that a forced purchase is not a legitimate commercial exchange.

But the paleocon in me responds this way: This is the antitraditional bed you've made for us. Now lie in it.