Tag Archives: Bruce Ackerman

Liberty of Contract: Removal from the “Anticanon”

Research proposal posted by Elizabeth Donald.

Part One: Topic Explanation

Liberty of contract was originally introduced into U.S. constitutional jurisprudence through the case of Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905). In this case, Joseph F. Lochner challenged a provision of the New York Bakeshop Act of 1895 that prohibited bakers from working more than ten hours per day and 60 hours per week. The Supreme Court held that this regulation failed to pass constitutional muster in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the Court found “liberty of contract,” that is, the freedom of individuals and groups to enter into contracts, to be a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Other Supreme Court decisions continued to build on this idea during what is now referred to as “The Lochner Era” of cases. This includes Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1923), invalidating a minimum wage law and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 286 U.S. 510 (1925), deeming unconstitutional a regulation that led to the closing of many private Catholic schools.

Part Two: Pros and Cons

The Lochner decision was considered one of the most controversial cases of its time after being handed down in 1905. Progressive jurists, politicians, and scholars alike denounced Lochner, whether for attempting to constitutionalize laissez-faire economics or for exceeding judicial authority.[1] They believed that the conservative-leaning Lochner majority reached far beyond the scope of its powers. This is because although the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly list “liberty of contract” as a fundamental right, the court still found it to be so under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause which states, “[N]or shall any person … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend. XVI, § 1. In finding a liberty of contract within the Constitution, Progressives saw the majority as an advocate of big business that attempted to adopt policy by means of judicial decision. These Progressive jurists instead encouraged a deference to the legislature on all matters, economic and personal. Since the early 20th century, Progressive ideology has shifted, but still views liberty of contract in a negative light.

Flashing forward to today, jurists across the political spectrum remain highly critical of Lochner. Constitutional theorist Bruce Ackerman places Lochner in his “anticanon” of cases. Unlike early 20th century Progressives, today’s Progressive jurists typically believe in using strict scrutiny to analyze laws regarding personal rights. Yet, they now isolate personal liberties from economic liberties, which are still considered unwarranting of constitutional protection.[2] Twenty-first century conservatives, likewise, do not tend to favor liberty of contract. Conservative jurists today often advocate for a deference to the legislature on both personal and economic issues. Thus, the conservative viewpoint has also significantly shifted from the Lochner Era right-wing belief that natural rights precede positive law and that liberty of contract is one of those inherent natural rights. This leaves little room for hope for the few present-day proponents of liberty of contract. However, the idea of contractual freedom as a fundamental right might not be as bad as many make it seem. In fact, liberty of contract is really a derivative of the natural law.

The natural law, according to St. Pope John Paul II, is a law that resides within the “depths of the conscience.” It is written on the hearts of all men, according to which God will be the judge. Legal theorists have found certain rights to be inherent within this natural law. The Constitution itself was founded on the idea of natural rights. James Madison, a drafter of the Constitution, believed that man “embraces everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to everyone else the like advantage…”[3] This idea was the bedrock of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which was eventually applied to the states through the Fourteenth. Therefore, the Court majority in Lochner simply viewed liberty of contract as one of these natural rights under due process. This reading of the Due Process Clause achieves much greater validation than suggested by Lochner’s opponents. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, 14 Stat. 27-30, which gave way to the Fourteenth Amendment, listed liberty of contract first in the rights accorded to man. In this act, the 39th Congress wrote that, “[a]ll persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties …” This act served the purpose of enforcing the natural rights of man. Therefore, the Lochner majority’s belief in liberty of contract as a fundamental right was not unwarranted.

Part Three: Questions of Ethics

Liberty of contract is intertwined with ethics because the very idea of ethics rests on the natural law. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the natural law “constitutes the principles of practical rationality,” which are the rules by which human action is to be judged as reasonable or unreasonable.[4] It is from this ethical theory that fundamental rights were developed. Not only that, but contractual freedom is essential to business ethics as well. The significance of liberty of contract comes through in the employment-at-will rule which gives employers unfettered power to “dismiss their employees at will for good cause, for no cause, or even for cause morally wrong, without being thereby guilty of a legal wrong.” However, because the employment-at-will theory is supported by laissez-faire economics, it too is often criticized by Progressive jurists who oppose free markets. Yet, even though early 20th century Progressive jurists denounced the Lochner decision for its association with laissez-faire ideals, this does not invalidate the fact that liberty of contract can be viewed as a fundamental right within the natural law. Further, just because liberty of contract is an economic liberty does not mean it cannot be a fundamental liberty. Since provisions of the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 demonstrate that both the Founding Fathers and the 39th Congress understood liberty of contract as deriving from the natural law, it is valid to not only consider this liberty as fundamental, but also ethical.

Works cited:

[1] David E. Bernstein, Rehabilitating Lochner (2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Colleen Sheehan, James Madison and Our First Duty, THE CENTER FOR VISION AND VALUES (Sep. 23, 2014), http://www.visionandvalues.org/2014/09/james-madison-and-our-first-duty-by-dr-colleen-sheehan/.

[4] Aquinas, ST I-II. Q94.