I learned a new phrase today: "Moral Suasion"

Former Solicitor General Don Verrilli dropped a nice turn of phrase in California v. Texas


Today during oral argument in California v. Texas, former Solicitor General Don Verrilli used a phrase that I had never heard before: "moral suasion." I thought I misheard him, but then he repeated it three more times.

First, you'd have to accept that the 2017 Congress said we're going to eliminate any financial pressure to stay in the market, but the moral suasion is still so important that the entire law has to fall. And I just don't think that's a plausible account of what happened in 2017. . . .

Third, the --the contemporaneous history is quite clear. The President, the congressional leadership, the bill sponsors, the committee chairmen, they all were shouting from the rooftops that they were repealing the mandate and giving citizens complete flexibility about whether to purchase insurance. That is not what you would be saying to the world if you thought that moral suasion was essential to keep the system going.

And, finally, even if you thought that Congress really did have an interest in continuing moral suasion, that doesn't mean that they would have preferred to bring the whole ACA crashing down if 5000A were declared unconstitutional.

What does "moral suasion" mean? The Oxford reference book offers this definition:

"A regulatory body's use of argument and persuasion, rather than coercion or legislation, to influence the activities of those within its purview. The term is often applied to the efforts of the Federal Reserve Board (see Federal Reserve System) to persuade its members to comply with its policies."

This phrase does not appear in the House's brief. And I only found a single reference to the phrase "moral suasion" in the context of the ACA: a 2013 NBER Working Paper, titled "THE ARTICULATION EFFECT OF GOVERNMENT POLICY: HEALTH INSURANCE MANDATES VERSUS TAXES."

The mandate articulation might affect behavior through moral suasion (a perceived individual obligation to comply with the law), but might also affect behavior through social channels.

There you go. "Moral suasion."


NEXT: A Mandate or a Choice?

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  1. That argument doesn’t work because Texas hasn’t expanded Medicaid under Obamacare...as a famous Texan once said, “Oops!” 😉

  2. Seriously, I think that term may have entered my vocabulary back in high school. Not widely read, are you?

    This particular genre is not going to improve your reputation, I'd avoid it if I were you.

    1. I agree that this is not a particularly obscure usage (indeed, it wouldn't even occur to me that an educated audience might not be familiar with it).

      On the other hand, you might find yourself enjoying life more this way:


      1. Yeah, fair enough. But I do think he ought to, the next time he encounters a new phrase, do a bit of research to see if it's actually obscure, before sharing it with others. He already catches enough flack here.

        1. You're both right.

    2. Right.

      It's commonly used - maybe not so commonly any more - to describe one tool the Fed has to influence bank behavior. Though I'm not sure the "suasion" didn't have a bit more behind it than just, "Please do the right thing."

  3. I just heard about this "bully pulpit" thing. I know Trump is a bully, but I didn't know he was also a minister. What gives?

  4. A common phrase in political rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s. Josh, you're so young.

    1. No kidding. Where has he been?

  5. Moral Suasion is, by and large, a financial markets term. When the Federal Reserve used to wish a certain behavior by financial markets without taking a specific action, it would telegraph it by appealing to participants' as a "moral suasion" request. (Used frequently in the Volker, Greenspan times).

    1. I recall the term coming up in a bully pulpit sense during the Reagan administration.

  6. My dictionary (Oxford American English) defines Suasion as formal persuasion as opposed to force or compulsion. There may be other kinds of suasion besides moral suasion -- perhaps begging and whining would count.

    1. "Moral" suasion attempts to persuade you to do something because it's the moral thing to do. I suppose other forms of suasion attempt to engage other motives, such as profit or fear.

      1. We can make up some sniglets—boobies suasion, Hooters uses “boobies suasion” get you to buy more beer because you get to see more boobies.

  7. I have only seen that phrase used in a grade appeal policy: at my undergrad institution, the instructor had absolute authority over grades. If the dean's office thought a grade was unfair on appeal, they could use "moral suasion" to get the instructor to change it.

  8. Anything that promotes literacy among right-wingers is good.

  9. It's very common in 19th c English. For example from one of J H Newman's historical essays: "Hence, while bodily strength is the token of barbarian power, mental ability is the honourable badge of civilized states. The one is like Ajax, the other like Ulysses; civilized nations are constructive, barbarous are destructive. Civilization spreads by the ways of peace, by moral suasion, by means of literature, the arts, commerce, diplomacy, institutions; and, though material power never can be superseded, it is subordinate to the influence of mind. Barbarians can provide themselves with swift and hardy horses, can sweep over a country, rush on with a shout, use the steel and fire-brand, and frighten and overwhelm the weak or cowardly; but in the wars of civilized countries, even the implements of carnage are scientifically constructed, and are calculated to lessen or supersede it; and a campaign becomes co-ordinately a tour of savants, or a colonizing expedition, or a political demonstration."

  10. "a phrase that I had never heard before"

    Kids these days. It probably never came up in Harry Potter.

  11. Since there's not any shouting or name-calling here, I'd like to ask a question about this case (IANAL). If I understand correctly, the Supreme Court ruled that the original ACA was only allowable at all because the penalty could be considered a tax. Yet now, the argument is that since the penalty is zero, there's no harm so the law stands. So if the penalty had been zero to begin with, the ACA wouldn't be allowable, but because there was one for a while, it's fine? That seems a lot like cheating.

    1. I think the argument is that the mandate was constitutional because the penalty for violating it was 'just' a 'tax', (Though the law called it a penalty.) And the government can condition a tax on just about anything except a few suspect categories, where "Not asking how high when told to jump" isn't a suspect category.

      So the government can order you to do almost anything they feel like, and fine you if you don't do it, as long as they have the IRS collect the fine. Don't want to pay the "refused to quarter troops" tax? Let the nice soldier use your spare bedroom for free.

      By this reasoning, the mandate wasn't really a mandate, despite using all those mandatey words like "shall", "penalty", and "requirement".

      If you take this reasoning seriously, (I don't, because it IS written as a command.) then reducing the tax to zero makes it even less of a mandate.

      1. That's at least plausible. Thanks.

  12. What movie had the phrase, "moral turpitude?"

  13. First encounter with "moral suasion" came during work for a state-sponsored international bank. At times other sovereigns were loathe to comply with lending terms. During discussions, the potential for future "moral suasion" with respect to financing emerged. In other words, compliance would be required or future financing would be denied.

    This has so much more gentility than "upping the vig."

    Federal officials used this term quite frequently when bailing out financial institutions during the 2008 crash. Make of that what you will.

  14. I had never heard the term before, either, although I immediately connected it with persuasion. I'd love to learn more about the etymology! I would assume the prefixless version came first, but why did speakers/writers feel it necessary to add a prefix? The meanings don't seem significantly different to me.

    1. The etymology is nothing exciting. Latin 2nd conjugation verb: suadeo, suadEre, suasi, suasus(a)(um). It means to induce or persuade.

      In Latin, the prefix "per" can be an intensive, so persuadeo is just a more emphatic version of suadeo.

      1. At least it's not a stinking back formation. God, I hate it when people propose to "surveil" somebody. Like the word "survey" didn't exist.

  15. Because it’s the right thing to do. Moral suasion.

  16. C'mon man!

    Everyone knows Congress can regulate economic decisions, but surely they cannot regulate morality! Therefore the moral suasion argument is baseless.

    Law, schmaw -if persons feel morally compelled to follow the law, that is their hang-up, not ours.

  17. It is a shame that the Repubs did not think to reduce the penalty to 1 cent. That would have kept the standing issue alive while effectively killing the mandate.

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