Since Tuesday’s oral arguments in Virginia v. Sebelius—the first Obamacare challenge to reach the circuit court level, and one in which Cato also filed an amicus brief—the legal blogosphere has been discussing the Fourth Circuit panel’s incredulity concerning the activity/inactivity distinction at the heart of our arguments against Obamacare. As Ilya Shapiro explains, we contend that if Congress’s power to regulate “interstate commerce” reaches the inactivity of not buying health insurance, then there is nothing it does not reach. The Supreme Court will eventually have to grapple with this question and decide whether the distinction is constitutionally meaningful.
As Volokh conspirator Jonathan Adler points out, the activity/inactivity distinction is long-standing. At common law, there was no legally enforceable duty to rescue. In other words, if you didn’t act to create the danger, you would not be liable for your inactivity in not helping. To put it bluntly: you would have no legal liability if you ignored a drowning child.
Legal philosophers have grappled with the meaning of “act” and “omission” for centuries. While there are some difficult issues to ponder, there is also an element of navel-gazing in the question and the Supreme Court may have to gaze long at their navels to answer it. But it is worth remembering why the act/omission distinction matters in a free society. At the risk of getting too philosophical, I will add some thoughts of my own.
Anyone who has been to law school has likely had long conversations, probably in torts class, over whether the act/omission distinction is both meaningful and moral. If your torts class was like mine, your professor lamented the “no duty to rescue” rule as evidence of our individualistic and selfish society. Many law professors believe our slavish adherence to the act/omission distinction not only allows us to let children drown, but that it is just another “Western” belief that holds back a robust welfare state.
The aversion to mandating action, however, is not about letting children drown. I wouldn’t let a child drown and I imagine you wouldn’t either. The extreme hypothetical helps gloss over a meaningful principle for normal, run-of-the-mill cases. Just as bad facts make bad law, bad hypotheticals can blur vital principles. The act/omission distinction helps delineate, albeit imperfectly, the personal sphere of control and the governmental sphere of control.
Recently I wrote an article arguing that there never was a golden age of liberty and that in particular libertarians should not hail 19th-century America as a small-government paradise, at least not without grappling with the massive problem of slavery. Jacob Hornberger, author of an article that I criticized, responded in Reason, and I then responded here. Meanwhile, an interesting discussion took place on a email list of libertarian scholars, and I'm pleased to have gotten the permission of several participants to include some of that discussion here:
Here are some interesting new items on the web:
- Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff is interviewed by John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute. Nat says “Obama has little, if any, principles except to aggrandize and make himself more and more important.” And “Obama is possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had.” Go here for the full interview.
- Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate is blogging this week over at the Volokh Conspiracy on his new book, Three Felonies a Day.
- Cato Adjunct Scholar Marie Gryphon, who is also a Senior Fellow with the Manhattan Institute, has just put out a new paper, It’s a Crime: Flaws in Federal Statutes That Punish Regular Businesspeople.
- Cato Media Fellow Radley Balko takes a look at the pathetic machinations in the Chicago Police Department. Reminds me of the proud boast from a patronage worker in the political machine: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!”
Good stuff here. For more Cato scholarship, go here.
There’s an interesting back‐and‐forth over at the Volokh Conspiracy about whether legislators should have to read the actual legislative text of bills they vote on. Most people’s intuitive reaction is: “Duh, of course!” But if you’ve ever actually spent time poring over legislative text, you know that reading the bill itself seldom leaves you with a very good sense of what it does. Legislation is typically a tangle of modifications along the lines of “Strike paragraph 2, replace the period with a semicolon, insert the word ‘reasonable’ in the following sentence…” — which is why legislators have staffers who prepare plain‐English summaries of the effects of legislation. Now certainly it would be possible to render bills somewhat more readable to ordinary people. Saving paper is not a huge concern in the digital era, so there’s no good reason legislation couldn’t simply contain the full text of the statutory provisions it amended, perhaps including a side‐by‐side comparison highlighting the changes. Even this, however, wouldn’t necessarily be all that illuminating. I’ve got a reference book on my desk that contains the 80‐or‐so pages of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and then a few hundred pages explaining what it actually means. It’s not enough to know what the verbatim text says; you need to understand how it interacts with other statutes, how key terms are defined in the law, how courts have interpreted the law’s provisions, and so on.
Legislation could be written in a somewhat more transparent way, but in light of all these complex interactions, it can’t actually be that much more transparent, for the same reason computer programs are a lot longer and more impenetrable than a plain‐English description of what the program does. Achieving a result in a complex rule‐based system requires a level of precision and sensitivity to how terms are used within the system that’s at odds with colloquial description. Of course, for precisely the same reason that summaries will give an ordinary person a better understanding of a law than scrutiny of the verbatim text, they also give a very incomplete understanding. An ordinary language description will tell you what a computer program is supposed to do. If you want to know whether it’s going to crash or open up a security vulnerability under certain conditions, perhaps when it interacts with other software running simultaneously, you need to have a look at the source code. Again, if you’ve spent any time digging through legislation, you know that the staff summary of a bill often glosses over many interesting little details and ambiguities you can ferret out while reading the text.
Most legislators, of course — even those with legal training — cannot possibly have the kind of expertise needed to undertake meaningful scrutiny of the details of legislative text outside a tiny number of issue areas. So does it make sense to insist that every member of Congress literally “read the bill”? Probably not. The actual text will contain important details not captured in a summary, but only an expert will really understand what those are on the basis of the text anyway. Crucially, this is not a function of needless obscurantism on the part of Congress: it is a necessary feature of legislation in a legal system as complex as ours. Which means that there’s a pretty basic tension between the value of democratic transparency and a large, complex government. Past a certain point, it’s more or less impossible for any individual legislator — let alone ordinary citizens — to really understand the vast majority of bills Congress takes up in any detailed way.
On April 3, Cato hosted a special blogger briefing with Glenn Greenwald, who was here to speak about his new paper on the success of drug decriminalization in Portugal.
Here are a few highlights from bloggers who wrote about it:
- Dan Bernath from the Marijuana Policy Project
- Scott Morgan of StopTheDrugWar.org
- Jesse Singal, associate editor of Campus Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress
Also, a few links to bloggers who are writing about Cato:
- Citing new research that shows that the DC school choice pilot program was highly successful, Betsy Newmark linked to Andrew J. Coulson’s commentary on the study results.
- Ilya Somin discussed Patri Friedman’s new essay at Cato Unbound about the Seasteading Institute and the history of libertarian activism.
- Blogger Connie Carr wrote about William Niskanen’s essay in the new Cato Policy Report, “How to turn a Recession into a Depression.”
On Meet the Press last Sunday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D‑NY) said
Those on the hard right say, “Cut government spending, let’s go back to the old Reagan days.” Well, the last president who did this when we were in this type of situation was Herbert Hoover. Herbert Hoover said the government should do nothing when we were in a recession, not a depression. We did nothing and it related [sic] to a depression.
Reality check: Did President Hoover cut federal spending during the recession that became a depression? Not by a long shot.
Federal spending was $3.1 billion (those were the days!) in 1929, the year Hoover took office and the stock market crashed. It rose modestly for two years, then shot up in 1932. It dropped a bit in nominal terms in 1933, though deflation meant that the real budget increased. Then, presumably reflecting Roosevelt’s policies, it shot up again in 1934. In real terms, the federal budget was almost twice as high after Hoover’s four years as it was when he took office.
President Bush, President Obama, and Senator Schumer are all supporting Herbert Hoover’s failed policy of increasing spending to fight recession. Let’s hope they don’t have the same results and turn a recession into a Great Depression.
Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin dissects the “Herbert Hoover did nothing” fallacy at Volokh.com.