Munn and his partner Scott argued that the Illinois legislature could not regulate the work of their private enterprise, the granary.


The Munn v. Illinois case is quite famous. If you are searching for an answer to the question “Why is the Wabash case important in history?”, you need to learn about the Munn v. Illinois case first. It was investigated in 1877; in it, two partners claimed the authorities did not have the right to require them to publish prices, obtain a license from the state to operate, or comply with restrictions on the maximum price level. The US Supreme Court, by a majority vote, expressed its disagreement with the arguments of the defendants and, due to the abundance of precedents, stated that the use of private property, affecting the interests of society, should be controlled by society for the benefit of the country’s population.

Details and Significance:

Importantly, this case belongs to the field of economics and is related to the interstate commerce act of 1887. It addressed the issue of how the police have the ability to influence economic activity. In this case, the Court broadly interpreted the government-owned police power in assessing the regulation of the elevators. In the case of Munn v. Illinois, the court cited examples from law related to private property used for public purposes. So, if a river ferry, even if it is privately owned, is provided for public use, then the prices and other conditions of the ferry use are regulated by the government in order to protect the interests of people. A ferryman is a public carrier; arguments for regulating public carriers also extend to natural monopolies. Public transportation and natural monopolies are areas of private property affected by the public interest, which are thus subject to regulation by the government, which uses its available police forces to protect the public. This case was used as the basis for the regulation of railways, transportation companies, bus, tram, airline, and utility services in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries (the Wabash case and so on).

Opposing Views:

However, if one follows the theory of natural rights, antitrust regulation and legislation are unacceptable (check the work of the interstate commerce commission). According to the theory, an individual has inalienable rights, for example, the right to life, the right to freedom, and the right to property. They imply the freedom of any person to enter into any commercial relations on any mutually acceptable conditions, to make or exchange any goods that belong to them, and retain any property obtained as a result of such an exchange. In its turn, it means that it is impossible to use force against anyone’s private property; one cannot forcibly intervene in voluntary transactions with someone else’s property, apply regulation or prohibit certain types of business agreements, organizational structures or business cooperation (interstate commerce clause).

The government should not regulate production and price formation of agricultural products, impose restrictions on the production of gasoline or prohibit the supply of labor at a price below a certain fixed level. Such initiatives as Granger laws expand these concepts further. The above philosophy of property rights undoubtedly remains a minority position. Many experts believe that private ownership is not inalienable or natural. They believe that property relations are useful social conventions which, under certain circumstances, contribute to the growth of public welfare and are therefore sanctioned by the state. If you are interested in further insights into the topic, also review the Lochner v. New York case.