Right-wing columnist George Will has a column this morning filled with deception and misdirection on the Supreme Court’s infamous Lochner decision. Lochner was the decision in which arch-conservative Supreme Court Justices struck down New York’s law setting a maximum work week for bakers (six days a week, ten hours a day).
Because of their much greater economic power, employers in New York had been able to compel employees to agree to terrible working conditions. The Lochner Court, seeking a way to impose its own economic and social policies, decided that the law violated the individual baker’s constitutional right to freely contract his labor. As manipulated by these Justices, the Constitution enshrined the “right” of the powerless individual to remain powerless in the face of oppression.
Lochner has come to represent the far-right Court’s use of the Constitution to impose its own preferred economic and policy goals. The Lochner era saw the Court strike down laws limiting child labor, setting a minimum wage and protecting union rights, all in the name of the Constitution.
Such wild judicial activism has been thoroughly discredited since the 1930s. But as the Roberts Court increasingly chooses to legislate from the bench to protect Big Business, forces of the Right are going so far as to seek to resurrect Lochner. Will writes that
Since the New Deal, courts have stopped defending liberty of contract and other unenumerated rights grounded in America’s natural rights tradition. These are referred to by the Ninth Amendment, which explicitly protects unenumerated rights “retained by the people,” and by the “privileges or immunities” and “liberty” cited in the 14th Amendment.
Reading that, you would never know that it is conservatives and not liberals who for decades have tossed the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments in the trash heap by claiming that if a right is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, then it does not exist. Conservatives have heaped scorn on the idea that the Constitution protects the right to privacy. How many times have they said that the word “abortion” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, as if that was at all relevant?
And the idea that the Supreme Court has “stopped defending the liberty of contract” is absurd. What it has done is stop misusing the liberty of contract to strike down consumer and employee protections.
During the First Gilded Age of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American society had evolved significantly from our nation’s founding. With the unprecedented consolidation of wealth, large corporations and their owners and managers dwarfed individuals in power in a way that our nation had never seen before. In addition, we were changing from an agricultural nation of independent farmers and small merchants into an industrial nation where millions of people began to rely on wage labor with vastly more powerful employers for survival.
Fortunately, the Constitution protects individuals from enthrallment to the powerful, whether it is a government or a private actor holding the whip. In the latter case, it empowers Americans to consolidate our power – through government – to accomplish that which individuals cannot do, including countering the otherwise unbridled power that economic forces have granted to some.
The corporate-funded Tea Party movement is perhaps the most visible effort to discredit the idea that Americans have the constitutional right to prevent giant corporations from oppressing workers, destroying the environment, and endangering consumers at will. The Constitution is not a tool to be wielded against Americans in the service of a developing and growing plutocracy; it’s a shield to ensure all Americans have equal rights and protections under the law.