I fear that with the PATRIOT Act on the brain, I’ve been remiss in continuing the colloquy on behavioral ads and privacy regulation that I’d been having with Jim Harper—who flattered me by responding in a long and thoughtful essay a couple weeks back. Because there’s so much interesting stuff there, I hope he won’t mind if I restrict myself to the first part of his reply here, in the interest of making this all a bit more digestible to those whose fascination with the topic may not be quite as consuming as ours. I’ll consider briefly the constitutional issue Jim raises, and turn to some of the specifics of the issue—and the relative merits of the common law alternative—in another post.
So first, let’s grant that there’s one type of “original intent” that everyone ought to care about, whatever their more general interpretive stance: what Ronald Dworkin calls the linguistic intent of the Framers. That is, if words like “commerce” and “regulate” had narrower meanings in 1787 than they do today, we must, of course, read them now in that light: “Commerce” means actual interstate traffic in goods and services, rather than economic activity more generally, and “regulation” is centrally about establishing uniform rules and procedures. With these appropriately narrowed readings in mind, I think it’s still a slam-dunk that online ads are covered.
Now, Jim’s reason for questioning this seems to be that the primary concern of the Framers was to prevent states from creating trade barriers. That may be, but if we skip ahead to Article 1, Section 10, we find that Congress knew perfectly well how to enact general and purely prohibitory bans on such shenanigans using more apt “no state shall” language. Instead, they used precisely the same language for interstate commerce as they did for international commerce, where history suggests that the Framers (many of them steeped in the mercantilist economic theories of the day) had been above all concerned to preserve the ability to erect protectionist trade barriers. So we’re left with a choice between ascribing to the Framers a frankly stunning level of linguistic incompetence or supposing that the Constitution actually does grant the affirmative power that a facial reading suggests.
Needless to say, this does not require us to adopt the post–New Deal reading that places anything with the least potential influence on economic activity under Congressional purview. But we’re pretty close to the core here. Indeed, one of the early cases I know Jim considers a lodestone for the “no trade barriers” reading, Gibbons v. Ogden, involves a congressional grant of a license to operate steamboats. The court found that this superseded the monopoly New York had sought to grant another steamboat operator, which fits Jim’s point to an extent, but it’s crystal clear from that (1824) ruling that the power of Congress here is a broad authority to grant or withhold a privilege to operate interstate vessels, and establish conditions on such vessels, including restrictions on ownership and personnel. It seems to me you’d have to get awfully creative to read the clause in a way that authorizes that kind of authority over an “instrumentality” of commerce (water navigation) but forbids Congress from specifying the kind of notice a merchant must provide when initiating an actual interstate commercial transaction.
A slightly more controversial suggestion: When the specific substantive intent of the Framers is not explicitly embedded in the Constitution’s language—by which I mean, the specific use they thought a wise Congress would make of enumerated powers in light of contemporary economic theories, whether liberal or mercantilist—I am not inclined to give it very great weight. Or more bluntly, when the legal language is abstract, I don’t think we’re bound by an original conception of how or where it applied in specific cases—to the extent such a consideration is even intelligible when we’re talking about Internet advertising. Manifestly, very few people at the time of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment believed that the abstract guarantee of “equal protection” entailed a substantive right of black children to attend public schools the states restricted to whites. But insofar as what they wrote into law was the abstract guarantee, I don’t think we’re required to care what they believed. Our modern reading should be constrained by the original sense of the words used, and to some extent by the original structural purpose served (translated as necessary). But in specific application—whether privacy rules for online ads are encompassed within “regulation” of “commerce”—then even if you pulled out the Ouija board and got a personal verdict from James Madison, it would just be one more opinion.
Finally, and maybe most controversially: What kind of recommendations should we make in a world where our preferred interpretation of the Constitution lost the fight a long time ago? If the question is what we should recommend to judges, presumably we want to recommend that they start shifting back in the direction of a reading we regard as better justified. But what about when, as Jim imagines, we’re advising legislators? Should we only recommend what we believe to be authorized by what we hold to be the best reading of the Constitution, or will it sometimes make sense to endorse legislation that is plainly allowed by the current regnant interpretation, but that might be outside the scope of the interpretation we regard as superior? I think it will, partly for theoretical, and partly for pragmatic reasons.
At a practical level, both legislators and citizens widely believe Congress to have broader policy discretion than most of the authors here. So very generally speaking, I don’t think it serves limited government to refrain from weighing in on the relative merits of policy options that wouldn’t be on the table at all if our arguments had fared better at the meta-level. (Recall the old joke about the principled pacifist answer to how to respond to World War II: Don’t sign the Treaty of Versailles!) Now, on this particular question it’s not a sure thing that Congress or the FTC will act, and maybe “hands off” is the best advice to give. But there are plenty of areas where there’s no realistic chance that Congress is going to abstain altogether, even if we think that’s what the best interpretation of the Constitution requires. In those cases, I think it’s at least sometimes appropriate to flag the meta objection and then say something about the policy merits. Obviously there are limits—I don’t expect I’ll ever express a view on the “best” way to run a torture chamber—but there are plenty of issues where it seems perverse for the people most concerned with limited government to sit out the day-to-day debates and focus on getting Wickard v. Filburn overturned, glad as I am that there are folks hammering that.
That dovetails with the theoretical reason, which has to do with the broader question of why constitutional principles are binding on us at all. I assume it is not because the Founders, brilliant though they were, enjoyed some divine right of command that the inheritors of their institutions are compelled to obey. Partly it’s that the principles embedded in the Constitution are good ones, but a substantial piece of the answer, I think, is that they provide a stable framework within which we conduct our political and private lives. Judges give weight to stare decisis even when they think the case at the fountainhead of a line of precedent was poorly decided, in part because the legitimacy and authority of law are to a great extent a function of its predictability, of the way it allows us to take actions and make agreements and know pretty much what the legal consequences will be, however much else may remain unpredictable. Constitutional restraints do this one level up, establishing (albeit roughly) a domain of legal variation over the longer term. This is not, for what it’s worth, wacky postmodern Critical Legal Studies stuff; it’s an extrapolation from Hayek. To imagine that you can remake a society’s institutions wholesale—even if your guide is the best interpretation of a founding document, and even if you’re pretty sure that interpretation held sway a couple centuries ago—is the fallacy of constructivist rationalists.
Now, I think the right account of why we should regard the Constitution as binding starts with considerations along these lines, but this has the (perhaps unfortunate) consequence that even if you had a super-awesome unanswerable argument for why the Constitution mandates libertopia, at least when read properly absent the accretions of precedent, you still wouldn’t have an argument that judges, legislators, and government officials must all start acting on this understanding as of tomorrow. What you’d have is a good starting point for a much more gradual process of paring government back down. Not, to be clear, because I think the Constitution “means whatever the Supreme Court says it does”—that would be incoherent, since the court’s practice is unintelligible, and its legitimacy illusory, unless we assume there’s an independent meaning for them to strive toward. But an “independent” meaning can be located in a community of interpretation and practice that extends beyond the framing generation. By analogy: If I want to use language “correctly” to communicate, I don’t get to just assign whatever meanings I like to words. It’s even possible to make a strong argument that the majority of speakers at a particular historical moment are using a word—like “decimate” or “hopefully” or “brutalize”—improperly. But neither does it mean that the first person to coin the term gets to specify its legitimate uses forever. And, in fact, anyone who insisted on using “decimate” to mean only “reduce by ten percent” would probably find his attempts at communication misfiring badly. To say that meaning is necessarily public and independent—consult Hayek’s cousin Wittgenstein here—does not require a baptismal view of meaning. Or at any rate, whether it does or not depends on the function your interpretive practice serves.
So yeah, that’s all pretty far removed from our original discussion—and I’m hoping far enough below the fold that it doesn’t put me on the wrong end of another dozen arguments with colleagues. I’ll do another post later this week where I actually get to the policy question, and some potent objections that both Jim and Tim Lee have raised.