48 Pages Posted: 9 Nov 2018
Date Written: 1987
The received wisdom is that Lochner was wrong because it involved “judicial activism”: an illegitimate intrusion by the courts into a realm properly reserved to the political branches of government. This view has spawned an enormous literature and takes various forms. The basic understanding has been endorsed by the Court in many cases taking the lesson of the Lochner period to be the need for judicial deference to legislative enactments.
The principal purpose of this essay, descriptive in character, is to understand Lochner from a different point of view. For the Lochner Court, neutrality, understood in a particular way, was a constitutional requirement. The key concepts here are threefold: government inaction, the existing distribution of wealth and entitlements, and the baseline set by the common law. Governmental intervention was constitutionally troublesome, whereas inaction was not; and both neutrality and inaction were defined as respect for the behavior of private actors pursuant to the common law, in light of the existing distribution of wealth and entitlements. Whether there was a departure from the requirement of neutrality, in short, depended on whether the government had altered the common law distribution of entitlements. Market ordering under the common law was understood to be a part of nature rather than a legal construct, and it formed the baseline from which to measure the constitutionally critical lines that distinguished action from inaction and neutrality from impermissible partisanship. This understanding of the Lochner period is faithful to what the Court said when it both engaged in and abandoned Lochner-like reasoning, and it points to an important element in the Lochner Court's approach, one that has little to do with an aggressive judicial role in general.
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