Book Review: Liberty of Contract

Last year saw the release of two books on the U.S. courts’ history of (not) protecting the liberty of contract: David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner and David N. Mayer’s Liberty of Contract: Rediscovering a Lost Constitutional Right.

My review of Bernstein’s book appeared in the Winter 2012 Independent Review; my review of Mayer’s book has just been published in The Freeman.

Which book is better? I couldn’t say. Both cover a lot of the same ground, and both are well-done. (Oddly, both were published at about the same time, and both appear to have been sponsored by the Cato Institute, though Bernstein’s book was published by the University of Chicago Press.) I recommend either or — if you really want to be an expert on all facets of New York v. Lochner and the courts’ inconsistent protection of economic liberty — both.

Here’s an excerpt from my Liberty of Contract review:

The U.S. Supreme Court has no coherent ideas about—or real respect for—individual rights. It generally allows governments to do whatever they want, with limited exceptions for a handful of rights it has deemed “fundamental,” such as the right to free speech (in some areas) and the right to sexual privacy (in some respects). Other rights, such as the right to economic liberty, receive almost no protection at all.

Why so much protection for some rights and so little for others? Because the Court has arbitrarily said so.

Libertarians, of course, think differently about rights. Libertarians think that our rights exist independently of government, and that if government has any legitimate purpose at all, it is to protect those preexisting rights.

Libertarians also think that all our rights are really property rights. We each own ourselves, and from that follows a right to own private property that we acquire through voluntary exchanges with others. Other rights, such as the right to free speech, derive from our right to use our own property as we see fit. And the right to economic liberty—that is, to trade your property and your labor freely with others—is just as “fundamental” as any other right.

In Liberty of Contract: Rediscovering a Lost Constitutional Right, law professor and historian David N. Mayer shows how Americans went from embracing the libertarian conception of rights reflected (imperfectly) in the Declaration of Independence to the statist conception of rights reflected in modern Supreme Court decisions.

Read the rest.

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