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.
In the Winter 2012 Independent Review, I review David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform. Here’s how it starts:
Few Supreme Court cases receive more scorn in U.S. law schools than Lochner v. New York (198 U.S. 45), the 1905 decision that struck down a New York law limiting the number of hours that bakers could work as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. It’s safe to say that most legal academics and judges today believe that the Lochner Court engaged in extraordinarily outrageous “judicial activism” motivated by a devotion to extreme libertarian ideology, big business, or both.
In Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform, George Mason University law professor David Bernstein makes the case that the conventional view is wrong. He provides persuasive evidence that Lochner does not deserve to be singled out as an especially activist or offensive case and that Lochner‘s Progressive critics were the real activists with a much more disturbing agenda.
Read the rest.
Another full chapter of Libertarianism Today is now online for free — this one on why libertarianism is antiwar. This is my favorite chapter of the book, so I’m especially glad I could make it available through Antiwar.com.
Other parts of the book you can read for free online:
And if you want to read the whole thing, it’s on sale at a special low price for a limited time.
After reviews by Bryan Caplan and our own Stephan Kinsella got my attention, I read Alexander Tabarrok’s new “TED” e-book, Launching the Innovation Revolution.
I went in with an open mind, ready to applaud practical suggestions for incrementally increasing freedom in the area of intellectual property, even if Tabarrok didn’t endorse abolishing the entire patent system as I do. But I was still disappointed.
To Tabarrok’s credit, he does start by showing why patents aren’t necessary to have innovation (at least, he says, in most fields), and he does argue for shorter patent terms (for some things) and less patent protection (for some things). That’s all fine, as far as it goes.
Unfortunately, too much of the book is devoted to promoting new central-planning schemes that Tabarrok thinks would work better than current government programs. Kinsella discusses some of them in an update to his original review; I’ll discuss a couple more.
Several years ago, I wrote a review of The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom by Cato Institute chairman Robert A. Levy and Institute for Justice co-founder William Mellor. As its subtitle suggests, the book criticizes twelve U.S. Supreme Court decisions that are especially offensive from a libertarian perspective, such as Wickard v. Filburn, Korematsu v. U.S., and Kelo v. City of New London.
Because I’m a libertarian myself, I agreed with most of their criticisms of the twelve decisions.
I had reservations, though, about their proposed remedy: “judicial engagement” on liberty’s behalf — that is, getting judges on board with (for example) the idea that Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause are much narrower than the Supreme Court has said they are since the New Deal era. This struck me as naive. Judges, after all, are part of the federal government, and the President and Congress both try to ensure that the people they put on the bench believe in maximum executive and legislative power. Judges haven’t increased government power because libertarian lawyers didn’t put the right arguments in front of them; they’ve increased government power because that’s what they were put on the bench to do.
In a response to my review, Levy and Mellor claimed that I was “far too cynical” — which only cemented my view that, for self-described libertarians, these two gentlemen weren’t nearly cynical enough about the federal courts. In fact, they seemed to have a faith in “good government” that is antithetical to libertarianism.
Lately, however, I’ve come to think that, whatever Levy and Mellor’s personal attitudes may be (it’s possible that I misread them), favoring “judicial engagement” for liberty does not require one to be naive about government and therefore is not contrary to the spirit of libertarianism.