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Economics and the Supreme Court: The Case of the Minimum Wage


  • Edward James McKenna
  • Diane Catherine Zannoni


In the United States, laissez-faire has been the policy advocated in good times, while social legislation has been called for during crises. One instance of this dichotomy concerns the transformation of the American understanding of minimum wage laws during the early 20th century. During this time, the view of minimum wage laws changed from one that viewed such laws as theft, to one that saw such laws as being required for distributional justness. We examine the legal-historical debate concerning whether the Supreme Court renounced its policy of laissez-faire individualism in its 1937 ruling finding the minimum wage law constitutional, arguing that it did not. We investigate the free market standard that the Court used to find minimum wage laws unconstitutional in 1923. We demonstrate how the economic conditions of the Depression, coupled with the development of economic theory, explain how the Court eventually found the minimum wage law constitutional.

Suggested Citation

  • Edward James McKenna & Diane Catherine Zannoni, 2011. "Economics and the Supreme Court: The Case of the Minimum Wage," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 69(2), pages 189-210.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:rsocec:v:69:y:2011:i:2:p:189-210 DOI: 10.1080/00346764.2010.502828

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Bacharach, Michael & Stahl, Dale O., 2000. "Variable-Frame Level-n Theory," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 32(2), pages 220-246, August.
    2. Battigalli, Pierpaolo & Dufwenberg, Martin, 2009. "Dynamic psychological games," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 144(1), pages 1-35, January.
    3. Bernheim, B Douglas, 1984. "Rationalizable Strategic Behavior," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 52(4), pages 1007-1028, July.
    4. Blount, Sally, 1995. "When Social Outcomes Aren't Fair: The Effect of Causal Attributions on Preferences," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 63(2), pages 131-144, August.
    5. Battigalli, Pierpaolo & Siniscalchi, Marciano, 1999. "Hierarchies of Conditional Beliefs and Interactive Epistemology in Dynamic Games," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 88(1), pages 188-230, September.
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    minimum wage; contribution; standard;


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