In Search of 'Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism'

25 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2010 Last revised: 12 Mar 2011

See all articles by Matthew J. Lindsay

Matthew J. Lindsay

University of Baltimore - School of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2010


This article is a response to Professor Jed Shugerman’s Economic Crisis and the Rise of Judicial Elections and Judicial Review, HARVARD LAW REVIEW (2010). Professor Shugerman argues that the widespread adoption of judicial elections in the 1850’s and the embrace by the first generation of elected judges of countermajoritaran rationales for judicial review helped to effect a transition from the active, industry-building state of the early nineteenth century to the "laissez-faire constitutionalism" of the Lochner era. This response argues that Professor Shugerman overstates the causal relationship between the elected judiciary’s robust constitutional defense of "vested rights" and the iconic, if unrepresentative, "substantive due process" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If we are to draw a line of historical causation between the mid-century vested rights decisions and the so-called "laissez-faire constitutionalism" of the Lochner era, it must necessarily run through the watershed historical events of slave emancipation and the industrialization of labor, as well as the transformative constitutional changes set in motion by the Reconstruction amendmnets. To the exent that Lochner-era courts did constitutionalize economic liberty in a manner that warrants the label "laissez-faire constitutionalism," they were inspired less by the "Jacksonian" vested rights jurisprudence that preceded the Civil War than by the constitutional and industrial revolutions that followed it.

Keywords: constitutional law, police powers, states, Lochner v. New York, federal courts, U.S. economy, substantive due process, liberty of contract, laissez-faire constitutionalism, police powers jurisprudence, laissez-faire economic theory

JEL Classification: K19, K39, K49

Suggested Citation

Lindsay, Matthew J., In Search of 'Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism' (March 1, 2010). Harvard Law Review Forum, Vol. 123, No. 5, pp. 55-78, March 2010, University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-6, Available at SSRN: or

Matthew J. Lindsay (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States


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