As we wait to see how the politicians in Washington will alter the stimulus package the Obama administration is pushing, many questions are being raised about the measure’s contents and efficacy. Should it include money for the National Endowment for the Arts, Amtrak, and child care? Is it big enough to get the economy moving again? Does it spend money fast enough? Hardly anyone, however, is asking the most important question: Should the federal government be doing any of this?
In raising this question, one risks immediate dismissal as someone hopelessly out of touch with the modern realities of economics and government. Yet the United States managed to navigate the first century and a half of its past — a time of phenomenal growth — without any substantial federal intervention to moderate economic booms and busts. Indeed, when the government did intervene actively, under Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the result was the Great Depression.
Until the 1930s, the Constitution served as a major constraint on federal economic interventionism. The government’s powers were understood to be just as the framers intended: few and explicitly enumerated in our founding document and its amendments. Search the Constitution as long as you like, and you will find no specific authority conveyed for the government to spend money on global-warming research, urban mass transit, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, or countless other items in the stimulus package and, even without it, in the regular federal budget.
This Constitutional constraint still operated as late as the 1930s, when federal courts issued some 1,600 injunctions to restrain officials from carrying out acts of Congress, and the Supreme Court overturned the New Deal’s centerpieces, the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other statutes. This judicial action outraged President Roosevelt, who fumed that "we have been relegated to the horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce." Early in 1937, he responded with his court-packing plan.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.