Threatening Insurers: Why Worry?

I was at a conference on free speech this weekend, and thus missed the excitement of balloon boy and other assorted tempests in a teapot.  I did, however, catch bits of Obama's speech, in which he joins Congress in threatening to remove the insurance company's anti-trust exemption, as a not-so-hidden payback for their report on insurance premiums.

Why should I worry about this so much?  Isn't this just libertarian hysteria?

I don't think it is.  I think this is fundamentally about freedom of the press.

I know, I know--it's just an industry-funded study!  How can I elevate that to "the press"?

Because the idea we have about journalists being some sacred, special group that has "freedom of the press" is, like the idea that militias=national guard, pretty ahistorical.  Freedom of the press was not a right accorded to the profession of journalism, on the grounds of their sacred and responsible conduct, because there was no profession of journalism.  Presses were owned by individuals, who engaged in all manner of speech, commercial and non. Freedom of the press was not the freedom to own a newspaper or magazine, and say what you wanted therein.  It was the freedom to disseminate written speech.

I know that at least some of my readers are gearing up to point out that we do regulate commercial speech.  But this wasn't commercial speech.  It wasn't even speech by a corporation.  AHIP is a legal trade association.

Threatening to strip their anti-trust exemption as a quid-pro-quo is the kind of thing that sounds cute until someone thinks up a way to do it to people on your side.  Would it be okay for a Republican administration to threaten Democratic groups that say unpleasing things by promising to pass laws--however sound--that would decimate the fortunes of George Soros and other big backers?  Or openly declare that if unions didn't stop issuing reports in favor of a higher minimum wage, the administration would have to revisit Taft-Hartley?

Though I'm fairly sure that the PWC report is right about the ultimate direction of the change in premiums due to health care reform, the methodology by which they arrive at that conclusion is not sound enough for me to rely on any of their conclusions.  And I don't see much reason to defend the anti-trust exemption as a general matter--though the argument that this helps small insurers set rates correctly doesn't sound entirely crazy, either.  But I am very sure that changes in the laws should never be wielded as weapons to punish speech that politicians don't like.  If publishing reports with questionable assumptions were actually a crime, most of the people complaining about AHIP would be in jail right now.