A few days ago, I wrote about Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, which lists the “enumerated powers” of the federal government. That post included a reference to Wickard v. Filburn, an infamous Supreme Court case that opened the door to unlimited intervention from Washington.
Why was this case important? As is so often the case, Sowell’s analysis is a model of clarity and common sense.
Roscoe Filburn was an Ohio farmer who grew some wheat to feed his family and some farm animals. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined him for growing more wheat than he was allowed to grow under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which was passed under Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce. Filburn pointed out that his wheat wasn’t sold, so that it didn’t enter any commerce, interstate or otherwise. Therefore the federal government had no right to tell him how much wheat he grew on his own farm, and which never left his farm. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution says that all powers not explicitly given to the federal government belong to the states or to the people. So you might think that Filburn was right. But the Supreme Court said otherwise. Even though the wheat on Filburn’s farm never entered the market, just the fact that “it supplies a need of the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open market” meant that it affected interstate commerce. So did the fact that the home-grown wheat could potentially enter the market. The implications of this kind of reasoning reached far beyond farmers and wheat. Once it was established that the federal government could regulate not only interstate commerce itself, but anything with any potential effect on interstate commerce, the Tenth Amendment’s limitations on the powers of the federal government virtually disappeared.
So why was this case such a disaster? Sowell continues.
The implications of this kind of reasoning reached far beyond farmers and wheat. Once it was established that the federal government could regulate not only interstate commerce itself, but anything with any potential effect on interstate commerce, the Tenth Amendment’s limitations on the powers of the federal government virtually disappeared. Over the years, “interstate commerce” became magic words to justify almost any expansion of the federal government’s power, in defiance of the Tenth Amendment. That is what the Obama administration is depending on to get today’s Supreme Court to uphold its power to tell people that they have to buy the particular health insurance specified by the federal government.
Sowell identifies the bottom line.
The power to regulate indirect effects is not a slippery slope. It is the disastrous loss of freedom that lies at the bottom of a slippery slope.
Many people have identified Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed the racist imposition of separate-but-equal policies, as one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history.
They’re right, but Wickard v. Filburn deserves a place on that list as well, only it enabled statism rather than racism.