by Jacob G. Hornberger, June 2002
Police powers and mercantilism
...The courts, however, had not limited the concept of “police powers” to laws proscribing violent crimes, such as murder, rape, theft, and burglary. Instead, the concept had been vaguely defined as the power to enact laws relating to the “safety, health, morals, and general welfare” of the public, a definition that opened up a Pandora’s box that harkened back to the era of mercantilism, an economic system that characterized European life during the 1600s and 1700s.
Under the old mercantilist system, the government had the power to regulate the most minute aspects of people’s economic affairs. Consider, for example, the cloak industry. The government prescribed how many cloaks should be produced in the nation, as well as sizes and colors. Regulations even outlined exactly how the nation’s weavers were to do their weaving.
Why were these extensive regulations necessary? Because if the government did not regulate the production of cloaks, it was believed, there existed the distinct possibility that people might end up with no cloaks to wear, which would mean that they might very well freeze to death. After all, what if everyone forgot to make cloaks one year? Or what if they didn’t make them in sizes that would fit the people?