Until the 1930s, the Constitution served as a major constraint on federal economic interventionism. The government’s powers were understood to be just as the framers intended: few and explicitly enumerated in our founding document and its amendments. Search the Constitution as long as you like, and you will find no specific authority conveyed for the government to spend money on global-warming research, urban mass transit, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, or countless other items in the stimulus package and, even without it, in the regular federal budget.
This Constitutional constraint still operated as late as the 1930s, when federal courts issued some 1,600 injunctions to restrain officials from carrying out acts of Congress, and the Supreme Court overturned the New Deal‘s centerpieces, the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other statutes. This judicial action outraged President Roosevelt, who fumed that “we have been relegated to the horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce.” Early in 1937, he responded with his court-packing plan.
Although Roosevelt lost this battle, he soon won the war. As the older, more conservative justices retired, the president replaced them with ardent New Dealers such as Hugo Black, Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas. The newly constituted court proceeded between 1937 and 1941 to overturn its anti-New Deal rulings, abandoning its traditional, narrow view of interstate commerce and giving the federal government carte blanche to spend, tax, and regulate virtually without limit.
After World War II, the government enacted the Employment Act of 1946, codifying the government’s declared responsibility for managing the economy “to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power,” and it has actively intervened ever since, purportedly to attain these declared ends. Its shots have often misfired, however, and we have endured booms and busts, a decade of stagflation, bouts of rapid inflation, and stock-market crashes. The present recession may become the worst since the passage of the Employment Act.
I expect the socialists to complete their take-over and solidify an iron grip on us this time. As Newsweek said, We Are All Socialists Now. The court precedences set in the 30s essentially guaranteed it. The only way that I can see that has any potential to get us out of the abyss is to go deeper into it.