How has interpretation of the Constitution changed with changes in our economic system?  In the decades after reconstruction American jurist built a constitutional structure that closely reflected...

How has interpretation of the Constitution changed with changes in our economic system?


In the decades after reconstruction American jurist built a constitutional structure that closely reflected the predilections of the Gilded Age--protective of property rights and distrustful of government intervention in the market and disdainful of the rights of labor and minority groups.   how does this ignite the idea that interpretation of the constitution might change over time in response to a changing economic system.  Thus setting the stage for my question.


What are the principles of constitutionalism?  [property/liberty, limited governmnet, minority rights, representation/democracy]

HOW HAS interpretation of the constituion changed with changes in our economic system?

Expert Answers
enotechris eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the founding document of the United States, the Constitution explicitly separated and limited the powers of government.  The structure it defined for the government was based on Enlightenment principles, beginning with the concept of Rights. The document says nothing of minority rights, chiefly because the Founders did not (and would not) recognize such a phrase; "minority rights" would have struck them asoxymoronic , as only individuals possess rights by virtue of birth. A given particular group has no more claim to any Right or Rights than any other collection of individuals.  If anyindividual's Rights are being compromised, it is the responsibility of government to restore them; this is the concept of Justice.

The Constitution says nothing regarding an economy.  Truly understanding what Capitalism and Democracy are (as opposed to what is taught in most classrooms) suggests that the Founders again would have considered that the government has no authority to decree any economic system.  It does allow the regulation of interstate trade, but the reasons were specific in the day; sadly, this one clause has been the excuse for ever-expanding government "intervention" when it is not called for, and actually damages economic progress.

The purpose of government is to safeguard rights.  Nothing more.  Where government expands, individual liberty shrinks.  Where individual liberty expands, government shrinks.  Part of the reason the economy in the early 1930's didn't "fix" itself was due to the first massive (and now sadly familar) government "intervention."  There's good evidence that suggests that the government blessed Alphabet Soup organizations actually prolonged the Great Depression. If programs had been established to insure people wouldn't starve, they should have been dismantled when starvation was no longer a threat.  However, there are no checks and balances, no market force, to keep such governmental programs accountable; removed from competition they do not have to adapt nor fight to survive, so "the nearest thing to eternity on Earth is a government program."

"Our changing economic system" is one based on massive government spending, expanding regulation, and intrusive oversight.  Since the Constitution was never written with the idea that the government would ever be allowed to do any of those things, it has been "interpreted" to allow for those economic changes.  Where it has stated an inconvenient truth about Rights, balance of power, or the proper functioning of governmental branches, it has been conveniently ignored. Is government the most innovative, efficient, and productive vehicle to create and disburse goods and services, to provide an economy that people want and desire?  If health care is deemed a "right," will government be the means of production and distribution?  What economic system provides the best quality goods and services to the most people for the cheapest price?  You won't find it in Washington.  You might, even today, find it at Wall Street, if government did its job and kept it a truly level playing field, by curtailing the health insurance industry.

During the New Deal, the concept of "interpreting" the Constitution became, and remains, fashionable. The Founders, however, meant what they said and said what they meant, and we have been faithless, 100 percent. Now it can say whatever any politico wants it to say, twisting to distortion the concept of the elastic clause.  The document was intended to limit and confine government and maximize individual freedom, not justify eternal governmental expansion to totalitarianism. Government expands at the people's peril.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The major way that the interpretation of the Constitution has changed is that it has come to allow much more government regulation of the economy than it ever did before.  This has happened as the economy has become bigger and more complex.

Before the Great Depression, very little government intervention in the economy was allowed.  The Supreme Court abided by an idea called "substantive due process" which essentially said that any government regulation of the economy was an infringement of people's liberty without due process of law.

However, the Depression caused a change in thinking because the unregulated economy was not fixing itself.  Because of this, the Court abandoned substantive due process in the case of West Coast Hotel v. Parrish.

Since then, the government has been allowed to regulate the economy in almost any way it wishes.