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The Constitution and the Supreme Court: The Judicial Road to Big Government

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We attempt to analyze the U.S. Constitution from a libertarian point of view. Also, to show how certain Supreme Court rulings and constitutional interpretations progressively allowed for excessive growth in government, particularly in the areas of denial and denigration of private property rights, intervention in trade, production, consumption, and individual freedoms. Hence, we analyze the complex and slow institutional path to increasing interventionism.


  • Constitution
  • Supreme Court
  • Liberty
  • Government

JEL Code

  • K10

Classical liberalism regarded those laws best that afforded the least discretionary power to executive authorities, thus avoiding arbitrariness and abuse. The modern state seeks to expand its discretionary power—everything is to be left to the discretion of officials.

Ludwig Von Mises (2011).

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  1. 1.

    THE CONSTITUTION, Justia, (last visited Sep. 7, 2019); AMENDMENTS, Justia, Available at (last visited Sep. 7, 2019).

  2. 2.

    Of course, apart from allowing slavery.

  3. 3.

    At least according to the Conservative tradition.

  4. 4.

    Much of which is predicated upon the existence of market failures. For a libertarian critique of this approach see Cowen (1988), DiLorenzo (2011), Hoppe (2003), Rothbard (1985), and Simpson (2005). For a critique of the public goods approach see Block (2003a), de Jasay (1989), Futerman (2014), Hoppe (1989a), Hummel (1990), Pasour Jr. (1981), Rothbard (1997), Schmidtz (1991), and Sechrest (2003, 2004a, b, 2007).

  5. 5.

    Although lower federal and state courts of course did their part.

  6. 6.

    Stalin once asked, “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”, see Higgs (2005). Of course, the same could be queried about the nine judges. They have no military might at their disposal either, apart from a few court police.

  7. 7.

    In saying this we risk committing the fallacy of the diamonds – water paradox. Menger, Walras and Jevons in their marginal revolution taught the economics profession to look at matters from a marginal point of view. See on this Jevons (1871), Menger (1950), and Walras (1874). To buttress this point, we note that it is the president who nominates candidates for the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, and congressional approval is necessary for their appointments. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the courts, but they are only one of the three branches of government.

  8. 8.

    See on this: Nozick (1974). See also Long and Machan (2008), Machan (2002), and Machan et al. (2012).

  9. 9.

    There is a debate about the subject of inalienability. Of course, involuntary servitude is beyond any debate, it is evil. But what about voluntary slavery? Can there be such a thing? In the view of Boldrin and Levine (2008) at 254: “Take the case of slavery. Why should people not be allowed to sign private contracts binding them to slavery? In fact economists have consistently argued against slavery – during the nineteenth century David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill engaged in a heated public debate with literary luminaries such as Charles Dickens, with the economists opposing slavery, and the literary giants arguing in favor.” For more on this libertarian rejection of inalienablity see Andersson (2007), Block (1969, 1979, 1988, 1999, 2001a, 2002a, 2003b, 2004, 2005, 2006a, 2007a, b, 2009a, b), Frederick (2014), Kershnar (2003), Lester (2000), Mosquito (2015), ROBERT NOZICK, supra note 406, at 58, 283, 331; Steiner (1994), and Thomson (1994).

  10. 10.

    The NAP means the following: [t]he fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory. Rothbard (2003). See also Rothbard (1998).

  11. 11.

    Also referred to as fundamental rights, or pre-political rights, which are euphemisms to refer to natural rights, but they are devoid of any religious connotation. Hence, they sound secular, since natural rights appear religious or mystical (due to the metaphysical meaning attached to the concept of the natural).

  12. 12.

    Spooner (1966).

  13. 13.

    As Thomas Jefferson claimed, “Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years” In Jefferson (1958). Observe that if consent does not exist, it does not imply that the government will disappear, although this should be the logical conclusion. After all, the Boston Tea Party took place because of a 3% tax on Tea by British authorities, but much later (in 1794), Hamilton and Washington had to stop another rebellion arising also due to taxation (the “Whiskey Rebellion”). See Whiskey Rebellion, ENCYCLOPEDIA.COM, (last visited Sept. 7, 2019).

  14. 14.

    See on secession, Von Mises (2002). At the same time, secession opens the gate to full self-governance or anarchy: Brilmayer (1991) (“Proponents of secession therefore face a very slippery slope in formulating a right to secede that does not open the door to complete anarchy.”). See also Chap. 6.

  15. 15.

    Of course, many of these problems were later fixed, through the 13th amendment.

  16. 16.

    For the libertarian rejection of a per se right of privacy, as opposed to being free of unwarranted government invasions of privacy, see Murray N. Rothbard, supra note 408, The Ethics… at Ch. 16, who avers “But is there really such a right to privacy? How can there be? How can there be a right to prevent Smith by force from disseminating knowledge which he possesses? Surely there can be no such right. Smith owns his own body and therefore has the property right to own the knowledge he has inside his head, including his knowledge about Jones. And therefore he has the corollary right to print and disseminate that knowledge. In short, as in the case of the ‘human right’ to free speech, there is no such thing as a right to privacy except the right to protect one’s property from invasion. The only right ‘to privacy’ is the right to protect one’s property from being invaded by someone else. In brief, no one has the right to burgle someone else’s home, or to wiretap someone’s phone lines. Wiretapping is properly a crime not because of some vague and woolly ‘invasion of a ‘right to privacy’,’ but because it is an invasion of the property right of the person being wiretapped.” See also Block (2016a, 2017) and Block et al. (2006).

  17. 17.

    Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (2015), Justia, (last visited Sep. 8, 2019). The Supreme Court ruled here that same sex marriage is included in the right to marry, and as a fundamental right it is protected and guaranteed by the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

  18. 18.

    The exact founding of the US is currently a controversial issue. For instance, we note that the New York Times dates this at 1619: The 1619 Project, THE NEW YORK TIMES, (last visited Sep. 9, 2019). Of course, this project comes with a specific political agenda. Most historians date this more than a century and a half later, in 1776.

  19. 19.

    Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 1 Cranch 137 137 (1803), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  20. 20.

    “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment. He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments. The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

  21. 21.

    Paradoxically, it was Marshall himself who did not give Marbury his commission. But he did not have to recuse himself because he was at the Supreme Court (there is no court superior to the Supreme Court).

  22. 22.

    It was not in the Constitution. In this respect, many institutional developments exist today as a tradition, but not as the result of any fundamental legislation. For instance, Texas has two Supreme Courts.

  23. 23.

    Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. 1 Wheat. 304 304 (1816), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  24. 24.

    On the application of homesteading principles to several areas, see Block (1990, 2002b, c), Block and Edelstein (2012), Block and Nelson (2015), Block and Yeatts (1999–2000), Block and Epstein (2005), Bylund (2005, 2012), Grotius (1814), Hoppe (1993, 2011), Kinsella (2003, 2009a, b), Locke (1948), Paul (1987), Pufendorf (1673), Rothbard (1969, 1973a); MURRAY N. ROTHBARD, supra note 408, THE ETHICS OF; Watner (1982).

  25. 25.

    Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 3 Dall. 386 386 (1798), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  26. 26.

    For a libertarian critique of such legislation see Alston and Block (2007), Block (1993, 2001b); Walter E. Block, On Reparations to..., supra note 422; Walter E. Block and Guillermo Yeatts, The Economics and Ethics..., supra note 422; Crepelle and Block (2017); Block (2016b).

  27. 27.

    For an alternative view, see Walter E. Block, Ex post…, supra note 424.

  28. 28.

    Crimes against humanity are an exception, such as with the Nuremburg Trials imposed on Nazi leaders.

  29. 29.

    “Latin for ‘that you have the body.’ In the US system, federal courts can use the writ of habeas corpus to determine if a state’s detention of a prisoner is valid. A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee (e.g. institutionalized mental patient) before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful. A habeas petition proceeds as a civil action against the State agent (usually a warden) who holds the defendant in custody. It can also be used to examine any extradition processes used, the amount of bail, and the jurisdiction of the court” in Habeas Corpus (2017).

  30. 30.

    McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 4 Wheat. 316 316 (1819), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  31. 31.

    Since the constitution did not textually state that the government could create one.

  32. 32.

    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

    To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

    To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

    To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

    To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

    To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

    To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

    To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

    To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

    To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

    To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

    To provide and maintain a Navy;

    To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

    To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

    To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of Particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;—And

    To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

  33. 33.

    Interpretation and its methodology. However, for a criticism of the movement which bears this name, especially in economics, see Gordon (1986), Hoppe (1989b), and Rothbard (1989, 1996).

  34. 34.

    17, U.S. 421.

  35. 35.

    Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 9 Wheat. 1 1 (1824), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  36. 36.

    For more on this, see DiLorenzo (1996), O’Driscoll Jr. (1982), McChesney (1991), and Pasour Jr. (1982).

  37. 37.

    22 U.S. 196–197.

  38. 38.

    Lottery Case, 188 U.S. 321 (1903), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  39. 39.

    For another relevant case where the Supreme Court again approved of Congressional power to regulate interstate commerce, this time through the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), concerning railroad rates (Shreveport Rate Cases) see Houston E. & W. Tex. Ry. Co. v. United States, 234 U.S. 342 (1914), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  40. 40.

    Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 (1918), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  41. 41.


  42. 42.

    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

  43. 43.

    Boycotting products produced with child labor.

  44. 44.

    See on this Block (2008a), DiLorenzo (2004), Kauffman (1992), McElroy (2001), Nardinelli (1990), Rojas (2010), Rose (1998), and Tucker (2008).

  45. 45.

    Mill (1870).

  46. 46.

    National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, 83 F.2d 998 (fifth Cir. 1936), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  47. 47.

    For a libertarian analysis of labor strikes see Baird (1990, 2000, 2013), Block (2008b, 2010a), Evans and Block (2002), Heldman (1977), Heldman et al. (1981), Hutt (1973, 1989), Petro (1957), Reynolds (1984, 1987, 2009), Rothbard (1991a), Schmidt (1973), and Shea (2010).

  48. 48.

    See National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, 83 F.2d 998 (5th Cir. 1936), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  49. 49.


  50. 50.

    Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  51. 51.

    A very desirable goal, according to libertarian law.

  52. 52.

    United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144 (1938), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  53. 53.

    This refers to milk or cream, which has been combined with fats, vegetable oils, and other such additives not produced from dairy cows.

  54. 54.

    Although “irrational” is often understood as hatred, false statements, etc.

  55. 55.

    United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100 (1941), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  56. 56.

    Joke: Luckily the court was not formed by praxeologists, because otherwise they would have ruled that even autistic exchange (Mises, 1949), is part of interstate commerce and therefore it could regulate all human action.

  57. 57.

    As an example, see Martino v. Michigan Window Cleaning Co., 327 U.S. 173 (1946).

  58. 58.

    West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  59. 59.

    Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  60. 60.

    See Block (1998, 2008c, 2014a) and Block and Block (1996). But see this for an alternative viewpoint. Tullock (1996).

  61. 61.

    For other issues pertaining to property rights, see Barnett II and Block (2007, 2009), Block (1977, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2003c, 2006b, 2010b, c, d), Block et al. (2005), Cordato (1992a, b, 1997, 1998, 2000), Fox (2007), Krecke (1996), Krauss (1999), Rothbard (1982), Stringham and White (2004), and Terrell (1999).

  62. 62.

    United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1 (1936), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  63. 63.

    See fn. 434, supra.

  64. 64.

    Home Building & Loan Ass’n. v. Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398 (1934), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  65. 65.

    P. 290, U.S. 483.

  66. 66.

    Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus, 438 U.S. 234 (1978), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  67. 67.

    That is a polite way of referring to contradictory judicial findings.

  68. 68.

    South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  69. 69.

    United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  70. 70.

    National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  71. 71.

    Hayek (1944); was prescient.

  72. 72.

    On the issue of eminent domain, see Block and Epstein (2004); Walter E. Block and Richard Epstein, supra note 422, Debate on Eminent…; Block (2006a). For zoning laws, see Goldberg et al. (1980), Siegan (1970, 1972), and Block (2014b).

  73. 73.

    Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), Justia, (last visited Aug. 28, 2019).

  74. 74.

    As in the fifth Amendment: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” (emphasis added).

  75. 75.

    14 U.S. 1 Wheat. 304 304 (1816).

  76. 76.

    17 U.S. 4 Wheat. 316 316 (1819).

  77. 77.

    22 U.S. 9 Wheat. 1 1 (1824).

  78. 78.

    188 U.S. 321 (1903).

  79. 79.

    234 US 342 (1914).

  80. 80.

    247 U.S. 251 (1918).

  81. 81.

    83 F.2d 998 (5th Cir. 1936).

  82. 82.

    304 U.S. 144 (1938).

  83. 83.

    312 U.S. 100 (1941).

  84. 84.

    300 U.S. 379 (1937).

  85. 85.

    317 U.S. 111 (1942).

  86. 86.

    290 U.S. 398 (1934).

  87. 87.

    438 U.S. 234 (1978).

  88. 88.

    483 U.S. 203 (1987).

  89. 89.

    567 U.S. 519 (2012).

  90. 90.

    For private, alternative law systems, see Benson (1990, 2002, 2018), Berman and Dasser (1990), Friedman (1979, 1989), Osterfeld (1989), Peden (1977), Rothbard (1973b, 1991b), Stringham (1998–1999), Tannehill and Tannehill (1984, 2001), Thierer (1992), and Woolridge (1970).

  91. 91.

    For more on this, see Napolitano (2004, 2006, 2014a, b).


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Futerman, A.G., Block, W.E. (2021). Law. In: The Austro-Libertarian Point of View. Springer, Singapore.

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