Sean King

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Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Congress' Power to Tax Infinite?

David Kopel:
Does Congress have the infinite power to control people’s behavior (such as by ordering them to engage in commercial transactions) via the tax power? I suggest not. When the Bill of Rights was being debated in front of Congress, the skeptical Rep. Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts asked if there should also be an enumeration that “declared that a man should have a right to wear his hat if he pleased; that he might get up when he pleased, and go to bed when he thought proper.” 1 Annals of Congress 759–60 (Aug. 15, 1789). Sedgewick’s point was that national laws about bedtimes and hat-wearing were self-evidently beyond the authority of Congress.

However, if the tax power means that Congress can order citizens to buy something they don’t want to buy, why does Congress not have the power to assess taxes on people who get too little sleep, or too much sleep, and thereby harm their own health and the public fisc? Or who wear hats so little that they increase their risk of skin cancer? Or who wear hats so often that they dangerously reduce their levels of vitamin D? In Sonzinsky v. United States (1937), the Supreme Court declared that it would not inquire into hidden regulatory motives that might have motivated a tax. But in Sonzinsky, the underlying activity (running a for-profit commercial business selling machine guns) was unquestionably within the scope of commercial activities that might be subject to an excise tax.

In contrast, not buying health insurance is not in its nature a commercial taxable activity. Neither is wearing a hat, or getting up when you please, or going to bed when you think it proper.
It is eminently within the authority of We the People to act politically on our constitutional beliefs that the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce does not extend to forcing people to buy a product which Congress has forbidden to be sold across state lines; that the power to regulate interstate commerce is not the power to compel a person to participate in instrastate commerce; and the that power to levy income or excise taxes does not include the power to impose punishment in the form of punitive taxes on persons who choose not to buy something–or who choose whether to wear hats and when to sleep.


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