At a splendid conference at the University of the South last weekend, the most important underlying theme turned out to be the question of the continuity of the 14th Amendment with the rest of the constitution. Some scholars—indeed most– argued that the Reconstruction Amendments represented a second founding and a radical break with the past.
In contrast, I believe that there is substantial continuity between these two essential parts of our charter of liberty. The 14th Amendment advanced and opened to all the commercial republic that was at the heart of the original Constitution. By their secession and actions leading up to succession, the South showed that it recognized that commercial dynamism and freedoms of the original founding would doom slavery. The Civil War just accelerated the realization of guarantees that flowed from principles implicit in the original Constitution.
For instance, before the War Southern states tried to gag discussion of petitions on slavery on the House floor and banish criticism of the peculiar institution from the federal mails, in obvious violation of constitutional guarantees. Slavery supporters also burned down abolition newspapers. They tried to ban books that argued that the wages of Southerners who did not own slaves were decreased by the institution of slavery. As Michael Kent Curtis noted, these acts allowed the North to reframe the debate about slavery as one about established constitutional liberties and the freedom of labor generally.
Greg Weiner, in a characteristically thoughtful post, suggests that libertarian constitutionalism wrongly eliminates democratic politics from the polity in favor creating a republic of reason where rationality is judicially determined. While I am not a libertarian, but a classical liberal, I think that the correct reading of the U.S. Constitution does impose important constraints on the politics of rent-seeking. But it does not suppress politics so much as redirect it.
Professor Weiner correctly observes that many libertarians want to use the Constitution to prevent rent-seeking. The provision commonly referenced for this purpose is the Fourteenth Amendment. Note first, however, that the Fourteenth Amendment’s provisions apply only to the states. Thus, under a proper reading of our Constitution, the federal government may countenance rent-seeking within the scope of its enumerated powers. The difference between the strictures on states and on the nation may comport with the greater confidence that the extended republic will not be dominated by particular factions.
Moreover, at least under the appropriate reading of the Fourteenth Amendment, the restrictions on state legislation are relatively modest.
In a previous post, I argued that the Fourteenth Amendment protects economic liberties. One concern often expressed about such protection is that the courts would become “a perpetual censor” of all legislation. But the best evidence of the originalist standard of review shows that concern is misplaced. The standard forbids economically protectionist legislation directed against citizens within a state, but is otherwise relatively modest.
Here Justice Field’s dissent in Slaughterhouse is again instructive both about which rationales justify trenching on economic liberties and which do not. (While his opinion relied on the Privileges or Immunities Clause, two justices who would have also relied on the Due Process Clause concurred on these standards). Fields, of course, would have invalidated the Louisiana monopoly that made it impossible for other butchers within the state to compete in New Orleans. Thus, it is not a justification under the Fourteenth Amendment to prefer one group of citizens to another. Economic protectionism, which is the essence of a state granted monopoly without public regarding considerations, is thus unconstitutional.
Indeed, no Supreme Court case has ever clearly stated that state regulation based on economic protectionism or on favoring one class of citizens over another is constitutional. The fact that the Court at the height of the New Deal was unwilling to say that states were justified in preferring one class of citizens over another because of politics shows how unpersuasive it the attempt to conclude that purely protectionist legislation meets even the most lenient standard of review.
The harder question is how courts are to proceed, assuming that the defense of the legislation can be rooted in a putative police power objective.