An increasing number of scholars argue that the Commerce Clause is best read in light of the collective action problems that the nation faced under the Articles of Confederation. The work of these “collective action theorists” is reflected in Justice Ginsburg’s opinion in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. Writing for four Justices, she stressed the “collective-action impasse” at the state level to which the Affordable Care Act responds.
In its purest form, a collective action approach maintains that the existence of a significant problem of collective action facing two or more states is both necessary and sufficient for Congress to address the problem by relying on the Commerce Clause. Unlike nationalist defenders of unlimited federal commerce power, a collective action approach does not ask whether the regulated conduct substantially affects interstate commerce in the aggregate. Unlike federalist defenders of limited federal commerce power, a collective action approach does not focus on the distinction between economic and noneconomic conduct, or between regulating and requiring commerce.
Accordingly, nationalists may agree that a collective action problem is sufficient for Congress to invoke the Commerce Clause, but they will disagree that it is necessary. By contrast, federalists may agree that a collective action problem is necessary for Congress to invoke the Commerce Clause, but they will disagree that it is sufficient.
This Essay anticipates such criticism. Regarding the nationalist critique of a collective action approach, I argue that the nationalist “substantial effects” test imposes no judicially enforceable limits on the scope of the Commerce Clause. I also argue that nationalists may define multistate collective action problems too narrowly. In addition to races to the bottom, collective action problems include interstate externalities that do not cause races to the bottom.
Broadening the definition of multistate collective action problems to include interstate externalities gives rise to the federalist objection that every subject Congress might want to address can plausibly be described as a collective action problem. Federalists may further object that the Commerce Clause is limited to “Commerce.” In response, I argue that “Commerce” is best understood broadly to encompass many social interactions outside markets, as Professors Jack Balkin and Akhil Amar have urged. I also argue that a collective action approach need not validate unlimited federal commerce power. Specifically, I identify three ways of limiting the kinds of interstate externalities that justify use of the Commerce Clause.