As part of their long-standing war on the Affordable Care Act, conservatives have filed a lawsuit willfully misreading the statute to deny upward of 10 million people subsidies to purchase insurance. This denial of insurance will almost certainly lead to significant amounts of preventable death and suffering.
Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute doesn't deny any of this. Instead, he argues that some suffering and death may well be a price worth paying:
In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals — including more cash for other programs, such as those that help the poor; less government coercion and more individual liberty; more health-care choice for consumers, allowing them to find plans that better fit their needs; more money for taxpayers to spend themselves; and less federal health-care spending. This opinion is not immoral. Such choices are inevitable. They are made all the time. [The Washington Post]
At a high enough level of abstraction, what Strain is saying isn't wrong. Not all public policy can function on the basis of keeping mortality rates to the lowest possible number. Some lifesaving treatments might help so few people and cost so much that they might not be worth it. Even major infrastructure projects entail some risk of injury or death on the part of workers, but few people would argue that any such risk is unacceptable.
But the fact that the costs of the ACA might theoretically exceed the benefits doesn't get us very far. What benefits, exactly, would accrue if millions of people were denied medical coverage because the ACA is seriously damaged or destroyed? It's here that Strain's argument falls apart.
One potential line against the ACA is the radical libertarian one, holding that any effort by the government to provide health care to the non-affluent represents an unacceptable level of state coercion. The problem here is that the "freedom" to die of preventable illnesses and injuries is not one the vast majority of people value very highly. A Republican Party committed to these principles would be transformed into an electoral coalition that would make Barry Goldwater's 52 electoral votes in 1964 look robust.
Since the people responsible for the anti-ACA effort know this perfectly well, the constitutional arguments against the ACA have the advantage of not logically requiring the Supreme Court to rule the entire modern regulatory state unconstitutional. The disadvantage is that they ask the court to deny many millions of people health coverage based on liberty interests that are ludicrously trivial.
The litigants challenging the constitutionality of the ACA do not contend that the federal government cannot regulate national health-care markets. Rather, their constitutional argument boils down to an assertion that the government has the authority to assess a tax to compel people to purchase health insurance, but not a penalty. It's pretty hard to argue that the fate of liberty in America hinges on this formal limitation on federal power.
The more successful federalist argument launched against the Affordable Care Act is similarly unattractive. Chief Justice John Roberts' inept rewriting of the ACA's Medicaid expansion allowed states to opt out. Republican-controlled states have eagerly rejected the large amounts of federal money on offer to insure more poor residents, something that is likely to result in the unnecessary deaths of more than 5,000 people a year.
I don't think this particular protection of state autonomy is worth that many lives (or, indeed, a single life). But here's the kicker: The Supreme Court's decision does not even meaningfully protect state sovereignty. Under the court's theory, Congress could have enacted the ACA's Medicaid expansion by repealing the pre-existing Medicaid entirely. This, apparently, would be completely constitutional. There may be things worth 5,000 lives a year; an incoherent legal argument that doesn't even really protect states' rights isn't one of them.
Strain's arguments have similar problems. To his credit, he's not a libertarian radical who asserts that the federal government cannot play any role in expanding health-care coverage. Rather, "universal coverage should concern itself with the catastrophic expenses associated with serious medical events that will affect a minority of the population." The affluent, or people with good jobs, can get real medical coverage; the non-affluent might get some protection for disasters, but would have to pay through the nose for common medical procedures. Whether or not one prefers this policy alternative — which I think is far worse — there's not a lot of meaningful protection of "freedom" going on here. The number of lives worth sacrificing so that people can choose between a few more insurance alternatives — or between the "freedom" to pay for checkups for their children or their electric bill — strikes me as "zero."
And, of course, even this is too generous to the Republican reformers. The ACA isn't unpopular because it provides subsidies that are too generous or because the exchanges offer insurance that cover too many things. The Republican alternatives Strain discusses will all disappear should the ACA be destroyed, because the trade-offs involved will outrage many voters. The actual Republican alternative Strain thinks it's worth killing a lot of people for is "nothing."
But, hey, the next upper-class Republican tax cut could be even larger, and it's not going to be elite Republicans who pay the price. As the writer Roy Edroso puts it, Strain's argument can be summarized as "give me liberty and give you death." I think we can see why Republicans would prefer for the Supreme Court to do their dirty work.