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Introduction:

Conventional wisdom holds that many of our economic freedoms come second to the interests of the nation in times of national crisis. During World War II, there was unprecedented growth of government intervention in the national economy. Inflationary monetary policy to fund the war effort without revealing the true costs through direct taxation. Price controls to camouflage the nominal rise in prices spurred by inflation. Rationing and quota systems utilized to divert goods from the consumer markets to U.S. Military. The federal government even seized factories primarily used for the production of consumer goods for wartime production. The American people saw similar measures during World War I. However, not to the same scale nor with the same level of Universal acceptance by American citizens. 

From the standpoint of the popular interpretation of history, all these socialistic policies were justified. After all, World War II was an all-out-war. The moral imperative of defeating the Third-Reich required dispensing with individual freedoms and free-market policies. It is debatable whether these policy prescriptions aided the United States in their victory in World War II. One thing that is for certain that these policies led to the further erosion of individual liberty and property rights. Due to most academics and laypeople believing that these were minor sacrifices when compared to the result of defeating a bloodthirsty fascist dictator. The true irony is how much the United States mimicked the economic policies of the fascist or socialistic regime. Per a cursory definition of socialism, it is an economic system in which the state controls the means of production. Displayed in the actions of pricing-fixing, consumption limits, and even re-directing production towards military equipment under threat of legal sanctions. This may have stifled the maniacal aspirations of a madman, this was all done at the expense of free-market enterprise and has to lead the way to the continuous growth in the size of government.

War Time Socialism:

In his classical book, Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs equates the historical wartime policies of to Higgs refers to such a state of total war as being either “wartime socialism” or “wartime fascism” (about price and wage controls during World War II). Depending on one’s “linguistic tastes” (p.211). To a certain extent, Dr. Higgs has a point. Fascism is nothing more than right-wing socialism. The brand of socialism practiced by the Soviet Union was nothing more than left-wing socialism.  In Ludwig von Mises’s magnum opus Human Action, the thin line between fascism and Marxism is divided by the variety of polylogism an individual subscribes to. Polylogism is the phenomenon where it is assumed “…logical structure of mind is different with…” groups of people. How these delineations are made depends on whether a person operates on class-based or racial/national polylogism (p.75-76). Marxism asserts that the intentions of all tycoons, entrepreneurs, and investors are inherently exploitative making it a superb example of a class-based polylogism. Fascists such as Nazis believe in the supremacy of their own race and nation-state. Assume that all other ethnicities and nationalities are inferior. Utilizing the state principles to guide the governance and economic activity of the state.

The unfortunate truth is that many of these invasive and destructive policies were nearly unanimously supported by the supreme court during the Second World War. The supreme court ill-fatedly acted as a mechanism of institutional validation for economic overreach of the government.  As detailed in Crisis and Leviathan:

“ The justices,  almost without exception, had formed themselves as cheering section for expansive legislative and executive actions of the bellicose times. None of the government’s exceptional exercises of power, not even one, was disapproved by the Supreme Court.” (Higgs, 1987,p.220)

One of the most prominent checks on executive authority did little to curb the aspirations of FDR’s administration.  In the context of the dire stakes of matching to victory in the European and Asian theaters of combat, social pressure made it difficult to articulate dissent. The ideological sway of “defeating fascism” with economic policies that mirrored some of the decrees of nationalistic dictatorships (Higgs, 1987, P.241). The Supreme Court haplessly codified this collectivist ideology by disregarding the principles of free enterprise and individual liberty. The United States won the war and even saw a few decades of prosperity after the 1940s. One can only be in awe of what was dispensed with to make it happen. These command-and-control measured were passed and validated with greater ease than those the legislation passed to remedy World War I and the Great Depression. This longstanding legacy of extension of war powers has permanently weakened the restraints against executive overreach.

Yakus V. United States – Background

One area that did receive a significant review from the Supreme Court during this era was price control laws. Most of these cases focused on whether the implementation and enforcement were procedurally constitutional (Higgs, 1987, p.221). The defining case was Yakus V. United States. The case was decided on March 27, 1944.  The Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 was implemented to prevent nominal prices from being impacted by wartime inflation. Two defendants were convicted by the district court for violating this law by selling beef at wholesale prices. The district court also invalidated any concerns of whether the Fifth Amendment rights (Due process) had been transgressed by the act. The defendants then decided to bring their case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Concerns of Constitutionality:

Per Oyez, there were two main points of concern regarding the Constitutionality of the Emergency Price Control Act. The first concern was regarding how congress transferred legislative authority. Making it reasonable to question the legality of conferring vast decision-making powers to the administrator of the act.  The second concern was whether the defendants had their Fifth Amendment rights under the Due Process clause breached by enforcement of this legislation.

The Decision:

The majority opinion held that the terms of the law were legally sound from a Constitutional standard. The court found that the way congress bestowed the administrator of the act decision-making authority was done so sparingly. Done so to achieve important objectives. That the Constitution enables Congress to perform its legislative function with some degree of flexibility. Regarding the concerns of whether the legislation respects Due process, again the court did not find the law to be transgressive. Citing that the standards are precise enough to guarantee that it is fulfilling its Constitutional intend, therefore it is constitutional ( operating as a narrow tautology, circuitously stating it is Constitutional because it is Constitutional).  

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any dissent from the Justices on this case. For instance, Justice Roberts cited that providing such digressional authority to a bureaucratic administrator makes it impossible for Congress to have proper oversight. Also, pointed out that the act relied too heavily on the assumption that the administrator would be impartial. Justice Rutledge also chimed in with his criticisms of this case. Reasoning that the court should not enforce laws without allowing the court to consider their Constitutional validity. Per Higgs, Rutledge referred to enforcement of the law as “asymmetrical” from a criminal prosecution and defense standpoint. This is since a defendant could be tried in federal and state courts, but could not challenge in these same courts. The defendant was required to petition the Emergency Court of Appeals within 60 days of the prospective concern (Higgs, 1987, p. 222).

Conclusion:

Few people are willing to challenge legal and economic decisions made during World War II. Most people would assume that these “temporary” violations of our liberties were for the greater good. Most of these invasive policies have served as the scaffolding to greater contraventions of our civil liberties and economic freedom.  We certainly want to avoid falling prey to the slippery slope fallacy. However, the historical evidence is overwhelming that it has been a steady progression of various policies that have worked slowly eroded our freedoms. Credulously acquiescing these laws and prescriptions as being for the greater good, is nothing more than a fallacy. It is well documented that price controls are awful economic policies. They distort one of the few mechanisms that both consumers and vendors have for bridging the gap between the information asymmetries of commerce. The way this atrocious policy was enforced through the Emergency Price Control Act endowed a bureaucratic apparatus with far too much authority.  The true tragedy being then the Supreme Court then proceeded to validated this horrendous policy. A tragedy indeed!

5 thoughts on “Yakus V. United States: Price Controls and Wartime Socialism

        1. The irony of the contempt that fascists and Marxists held for one another. When they are nothing more than two sides of the same coin.
          I suppose when there is foreign power that threatens your interests ( winning out in the pissing contest of ideological hegemony) you aren’t going to be too friendly towards the other side .

          However, even prior to World War II, neither the right-wing (fascist) or the left-wing (Communist) Hegelians got along.

          Liked by 1 person

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