According to an old joke from the socialist and frequently underfed Soviet Union, Stalin goes to a local wheat farm to see how things are going. “We have so many bags of wheat that, if piled on top of each other, they could reach God himself!” the farmer told Comrade Stalin.
“But God does not exist,” the dictator angrily replied. “Exactly!” said the farmer. “And neither does the wheat.” Nobody knows what happened to the farmer, but at least Stalin died in 1953.
Soviet socialism, with its forced collectivism and ubiquitous bread lines, gave wheat a bad name. Indeed, it was lousy at agriculture in general. As journalist Hedrick Smith (author of The Russians) and many other authorities noted at the time, small privately owned plots comprised just three percent of the land but produced anywhere from a quarter to a half of all produce. Collectivized agriculture was a joke.
America is not joke-free when it comes to wheat. We are a country in which sliced bread was both invented and banned, and a country in which growing wheat for your own consumption was ruled to be an act of “interstate commerce” that distant bureaucrats could regulate. No kidding.
On this anniversary—July 7—of both the birth in 1880 of sliced bread’s inventor and of the day in 1928 that the first sliced bread from his machine was sold, it’s fitting to recall these long-forgotten historical facts.
The Iowa-born jeweler and inventor Otto Rohwedder turned 48 on the very day the first consumer bought the product of his new slicing machine. The bread was advertised as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped” and it quickly gave rise to the popular phrase, “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Before 1928, American housewives cut many a finger by having to slice off every piece of bread from the loaves they baked or bought. Sliced bread was an instant sensation.
Rohwedder earned seven patents for his invention. The original is proudly displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He likely made a lot more money from the bread slicing machine than he ever did as a jeweler. He died in 1960 at the age of 80.
Enter Claude Wickard, Secretary of Agriculture under Franklin Roosevelt from 1940 to 1945. On January 18, 1943, he banned the sale of sliced bread. Exactly why seems to be in dispute but the most likely rationale was to save wax paper and other resources for war production. He rescinded the ban two months later, explaining then that “the savings are not as much as we expected.”
I’m sure Hitler and Hirohito were relieved.
Wickard figures prominently in another case of wheat follies, this one involving an important Supreme Court decision handed down in November 1942 in Wickard v. Filburn. The federal government under Roosevelt decided to limit the production of certain crops such as wheat to “stabilize” supplies and prices. Read that as “to reduce supplies and raise prices.”
An Ohio farmer named Roscoe Filburn was accused of violating the restrictions by growing more wheat than he was allotted. He raised the wheat not to sell but to feed his own livestock. The question was, Could the federal government regulate his wheat production under the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause, even though it never actually entered interstate commerce? The regulators said yes and the Court, in a dubious stretch of reasoning, agreed.
A few years before, FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Act supervised the destruction of healthy crops and cattle to jack up prices, which had plummeted because of previous federal interventions (namely, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and the Federal Reserve’s monetary contraction). Farmers noted the difficulty of getting their mules to comply with the AAA; they were trained to walk between the rows but now, under federal mandate, they had to trample the crops. The Court wisely threw out the AAA but by 1942, most of the justices were FDR appointees more sympathetic to Big Brother than mules were.
The Wickard v. Filburn decision vastly expanded the powers of the federal government over just about everything. Previously, “interstate commerce” meant just what you might think—trade across state lines. After November 1942, it meant essentially any activity—even non-commerce—that could indirectly affect interstate commerce. If Filburn used his wheat for his own animals, the Court argued, then he wasn’t buying it from other producers and thereby affecting market supplies and prices.
What about the fact that Filburn’s wheat production was so miniscule that his non-commerce in it was utterly inconsequential to markets? The Court covered itself on that one by suggesting that if there were ever a lot of people doing what Filburn was doing (or not doing), then the effects could be theoretically substantial.
“Even if appellee’s activity be local,” Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote, “and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce.”
This was judicial over-reach, unadulterated activism that surely flouted what the Constitution intended. Why have a “commerce clause” in the first place if the federal government can declare that you’re doing commerce—interstate or otherwise—even if you’re not? What the Founders designed as a specific and limited purpose for federal involvement in commerce was suddenly broad enough to drive an army through.
Even The New York Times questioned the bloating of federal authority:
If the farmer who grows feed for consumption on his own farm competes with commerce, would not the housewife who makes herself a dress do so equally? The net of the ruling, in short, seems to be that Congress can regulate every form of economic activity if it so decides.
Some 15 years ago, William Mellor and Robert Levy co-authored a revealing book titled The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom. Wickard is among the nefarious decisions they zeroed in on, and deservedly so. In his Foreword to the book, Richard A. Epstein opines,
By extending federal regulatory authority to nearly every productive economic activity, Wickard eviscerated the principle that the federal government has only those powers expressly granted to it in the Constitution. And for this reason: to sustain an ill-conceived cartel whose chief purpose was to keep the domestic price of wheat close to three times the world price.
Only government, it seems, can take the staff of life and transform it into the butt of jokes.
Putting the Framers’ Intent Back into the Commerce Clause by Eric W. Hagen
Wickard v. Filburn: The Supreme Court Case That Gave the Federal Government Nearly Unlimited Power by Antony Davies and James Harrigan
What Do We Want in a Supreme Court Justice? by Lawrence W. Reed
Great Myths of the Great Depression by Lawrence W. Reed