More than money: Antitrust lessons of the Gilded Age
The nineteenth century saw the rise of great monopolies.
In part III of our special series “More than money,” we discuss how Americans pushed back.
“Democracy emerges in the 19th century at the same time that capitalism emerges. And there’s a built in tension,” historian H.W. Brands says.
But what influence does that history have on antitrust law now?
“As capitalism got bigger in scale, these concerns about the influence of big capitalism on democracy increased,” Brands adds. “And they finally gave rise to these demands that big monopolies be reined in.”
Today, On Point: From President Teddy Roosevelt, to Journalist Ida Tarbell, to Justice Louis Brandeis, we discuss lessons learned from antitrust action in the Gilded Age.
Charles Postel, professor of history at San Francisco State University. Author of Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 and The Populist Vision. (@CharlesPostel)
Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. Author of the Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America and editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. (@JackBeattyNPR)
Stephanie Gorton, author of Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America. (@sdgortonwords)
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And it’s part three of our special weeklong series, More than money: The cost of monopolies in America. Where we’re looking at whether it’s time to expand the definition of harm when it comes to corporate monopolies. Do they harm not just consumers and competition, but democracy itself? Well, that is the view held by several members of the Biden administration. Lina Khan, current chair of the Federal Trade Commission. Jonathan Kanter, head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. And Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who’s now special assistant to the president on competition policy at the National Economic Council.
Together, along with other antitrust advocates, they’ve been called part of a new Brandeis movement. Well, today, we’re going to take a look at the last great national push against monopolies that gave rise to that name. So hop on into the Wayback Machine with me. First, quick stop: 1936.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT [Tape]: That very word freedom in itself and of necessity suggests freedom from some restraining power. In 1776, we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy from the 18th century royalists who held special privileges from the crown.
CHAKRABARTI: Running for reelection in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech lambasting what he called the tyranny of monopoly power. The struggle against economic tyranny, he said, began at the moment of the country’s founding. But the founders could not anticipate the coming industrial revolution, and how it would challenge their ideas of economic and political liberty.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT [Tape]: But since that struggle, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land. Forces which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads, of steam and electricity, the telegraph and the radio. Mass production, mass distribution. All of these combined to bring forward a new civilization, and with it a problem for those who sought to remain free.
CHAKRABARTI: Now what was that problem? Well, it was a new homegrown monopoly capitalism.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT [Tape]: Throughout the nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was right in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restrictive. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.
CHAKRABARTI: FDR gave that speech at the end of a multi-decade struggle against new monopolies that controlled railroads, banks, tobacco steel mills, oil refineries and often even the levers of government. So who were the politicians and the people who stood up to those great monopolies and tore them down?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Charles Postel joins us today. He’s professor of history at San Francisco State University. Professor Postel, welcome to On Point.
CHARLES POSTEL: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: And joining us today as well is Jack Beatty, On Point’s news analyst. Jack, hello, there.
JACK BEATTY: Hello, Meghna. Hello, Charles.
CHAKRABARTI: So, you know, Jack, I’ve already received some emails from listeners who are asking, Why did we not start with the East India Company and the founding of America, if we’re really going to talk about monopoly? So explain to us, why is it that we chose to actually fast forward to about a century ago, rather than 200-plus years ago?
BEATTY: Sure. Because this is when a recognizably modern American economy emerged. The earlier period, yes, there was certainly the protest against the tea. And then there was Jackson’s attack on the bank monopoly. But in the main, that economy was, you know, individual entrepreneurs, farmers. It was an economy of small. That changed to an economy of big after the Civil War, partly because of technological changes, the railroad and so on. And also because of changes in the form of business, the growth of the great corporation. So we we picked this period because this is the period when that great change from small to big happens.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, now, Professor Postel, we’re really sort of roughly starting where your book starts just after the Civil War. And the Civil War is inescapably, to my mind, part of this picture. So set up. What is it about the United States, beginning in 1866, that contributes to what Jack just described as a very rapid rise of giant corporations?
POSTEL: The rise is rapid, but I think we need to think about it as a movement from the Civil War to the turn of the century, there’s a lot of change. At the time of the Civil War, the only really big companies were railway companies, steamship companies. There’s tremendous change in technology — the telegraph, the railroads — to create these really big companies. And there [was] a lot of concern about them. We oftentimes think about them in a strange way, though.
We think of them as the big companies, that farmers rose up after the Civil War and tried to break up and bring back small economies. But what really happens is farmers, and America’s still largely an agricultural country in the 1860s and 70s. The biggest occupation in the country is still farming. But for farmers, the railway was absolutely essential. And they supported the waterways. They wanted bigger and better railways. At the same time, they’re very concerned about the monopoly power of railways.
And what that meant was that they wanted railways that would not get in the way of them getting their crops to the markets of New York or London. And that is where they emerge as the great antimonopoly movement in the 1860s and 70s, mainly took the form of the farmers Grange. That’s formed in the 1860s. And the farmers Grange is the first time the antimonopoly really becomes a major force in American politics after the Civil War.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, hang on here. Because I want to turn to Jack on that. Jack pick up that thought. What would you add?
BEATTY: Well, yes. And let’s talk about monopoly first, and how did all this start? And I think there’s probably no better way than to focus on sort of the prince of monopoly in America, John D. Rockefeller. Probably no person, no businessman in American history has hated competition more than Rockefeller. He came by this sort of biographically. It turned out that his family, his father was a bigamist. There was a competing family. There was a competing son. And that sense of chaos, and sort of, you know, having to compete with the other family, I think that thoroughly colored his whole personality, his hatred of chaos. And his view that competition, especially in the business he finally got into — oil refinery, kerosene — that that anarchy of production had to be put down.
And the way to put it down was to join forces. In one 48-hour period in Cleveland, he purchased something like six different oil refineries, and he concentrated. And he said, You know, I’m saving you. Join the ark. You can be part of things. And he did it partly through unexampled political corruption. It was said of him that Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania Legislature except refine it. He did it through really excruciating payback deals, drawback deals with railroads such that he actually got rebates on shipments sent by his competition. Things unheard of, ruthlessness unparalleled. But the result of it was to take an industry that was just succumbing to the anarchy of overproduction. He concentrated it and created an industry that lasted well into the 20th century.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. OK, so Professor Postel, if you want to respond to that, please, please go ahead.
POSTEL: Yeah, what Jack’s talking about is by 1890 or so, you have the rise to these really big corporations. In a way, it’s a complicated process, it doesn’t happen right away. And what’s going on is the trusts are forming, originally. And a trust was a pooling agreement to raise prices and to control monopolized markets. And what you have is in the 1880s, leading up to the 1890s. You have virtually, it’s led by standard oil in 1882, is the first trust. And what it is, basically, [is] a pool with a legal agreement for enforcing this pooling, over this monopoly. And this first one is Standard Oil in 1882. And then it’s followed up … virtually every piece of the economy follows this. You have a sugar trust, and a whiskey trust and an envelope trust, an assault trust and a rope trust … and so forth and so on. And this gives rise to a great concern about the power of these monopolies. And one result of that is the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about that in a little bit, we’re just heading rapidly into the break here. But Jack, let me just give you another 30 seconds to describe something to us. By 1890, it sounds like there was a huge amount of consolidation in the American economy. Is it similar? Are there echoes of that now?
BEATTY: Well, yes, especially in particular sectors of the tech sector, as we talked about yesterday. And we have heard again and again the statistic that in something like the majority of American industries, concentration has markedly increased over the past 20 years.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so when we come back, we’ll talk more about these trusts. We’ll talk about important names in this period of history and then, of course, what they did. Jack Beatty and Charles Postel, stand by. We’ll be right back. It’s On Point.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And today we’re bringing you part three of our special weeklong series called More than money: The cost of monopolies in America. And I’m joined today by Jack Beatty. He’s On Point’s news analyst. And Charles Postel joins us, as well. He’s a professor of history at San Francisco State University. And before we move forward more deeply into the late 19th century and early 20th century, Professor Postel, before the break, you had actually briefly mentioned mentioned the farmers Grange movement.
And I actually wanted to hear a little bit more about that. Because it suddenly brought to mind that, as listeners know, because I talk about all the time, but I grew up in Oregon. And my whole life, practically, I would drive by, basically ,the local Grange Hall. Benton County Grange Hall. And I never thought about, what exactly is it? It was kind of across from a local grain elevator. So tell us more about the farmers Grange movement. You had mentioned that they didn’t necessarily seek to break up the railroad monopolies, but you also called them the first anti-monopolistic movement.
POSTEL: Right. The Grange was formed in 1867. And it was very strong in Oregon and on the West Coast, it was a massive organization. Virtually everywhere in the West, the Midwest and the South. Farm districts, the majority of farmers would be part of it. And there was a social movement, a social organization. But they also were very concerned about the economy, the place of farmers in the economy.
And the way they thought about it was that a monopoly was anybody, any enterprise that got in the way of farmers having an equal place in the national economy. So the monopoly could be the local supply store. Because they had a grip on the local market of goods and they had shoddy goods. And so the Grange would organize a cooperative to bypass the local merchants. Often times the monopolies were the local merchants, the people they hated most. But they also had confrontations with the railroad corporations and the grain elevator companies. And famously, they pushed for what were known as Granger laws. The biggest of these were in Illinois and in Wisconsin.
But they also extended to the West Coast, and these Granger laws were state legislation that set the price and the services for railways and grain elevators, allowing farmers better access to the market. They didn’t want to break up these railways. They wanted to control them. They considered them public vehicles and that the public should regulate them. And the most important thing about the Granger laws, was they weren’t very successful. Because they were just state laws and interstate commerce, and that didn’t work very well. But legally, they were important because they established the principle that the public should be able to control corporations or companies that had that much public power.
CHAKRABARTI: So that’s really fascinating. Because then we quickly move to a time period that we just touched on in the previous segment. Whereas you had said, Professor Postel, we have the rise of these trusts. So, well beyond railroads, right? You basically said that almost everything, every product, or service or commodity became part of a trust.
POSTEL: Right, and that’s [in the] 1880s, that trustification takes place. And then you have this Sherman Antitrust Act, which basically says that’s illegal. You may not have a combination that restrains trade. You can’t attempt to monopolize trade. That’s in 1890. The really important thing about the Sherman Antitrust Act, it’s for the next dozen years or so. It’s never used, or almost never used, against companies. It’s almost exclusively used against labor organizations. Most famously, it was used to break the Pullman strike of 1894, the railway strike of that time.
And it’s what sent Eugene Victor Debs to federal prison, violating the court injunctions that were connected to the Sherman Antitrust Act. But so that’s the dead letter. But something very important happens. Incorporation laws are changing and the legal protections of corporations are expanding. So people say we don’t need trust anymore. We’re just going to have these monster corporations. And that’s where I think Jack’s story of Standard Oil really takes off. It’s under that rubric that that happens.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so Jack, then tell me more. Because I’m eager to understand how then we see the growth of these trusts, the rise of these big monopolies. And how do we know at what point in time it became a larger concern for democracy in general?
BEATTY: Well, I think that really comes in with the Sherman Act. And looking back on this period in the Supreme Court decision that approved the dissolution, the breakup of Standard Oil. Justice Harlan drew a picture of the climate of opinion in 1890 and how alarmed Americans were at the growth within their democracy, of a seemingly anti-Republican, smaller institution, a sort of power within the power. And Senator Sherman, in his speech on the Senate floor introducing the Sherman Act, voices this idea that monopoly is a threat to democracy.
And this, of course, is the same thread that we see here today in Lina Khan and these other neo-Brandeisians who are saying, Look, it isn’t just price that we need to look at when we’re talking about concentration. It’s the threat to Republican institutions. Sherman … said, If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life.
If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocratic power of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity. Senator Hoar spoke of these monopolies quote ‘as a menace to Republican institutions.’ And this is where we get the sort of, I think, inspiriting vision of anti-trust that it’s about the threat that bigness poses to democracy. In that bigness, you can buy out government and it can put the small man into a position of economic dependency on the big man.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so what you just said was really critical because I had on the tip of my tongue what felt like a gauche question. Which was, you know, a century ago, what was the public’s measure by which they could say the power of these monopolies was so great that it was interfering with democracy? And it sounds like the measure was a familiar one, just kind of, you know, being able to buy out government. Is there a particular person or story that really encapsulates that? I mean, J.P. Morgan’s jumping to mind here, but I don’t know if that’s the right one, Jack.
BEATTY: Well, there were all sorts of purchases of government. In fact, there’s a famous … cartoon of the Senate debating anti-trust legislation with figures of the trust. The senators are the swollen porcine figures. One representing the sugar trust, one the shoe trust. And, you know, politicians were bought in that regard. It was very like today. I mean, our politicians are largely bought at the federal level. And so were they. And those politicians tried to gel the thrust of the Sherman Act. And our politicians, I suspect today, are going to try to do the same to the neo-Brandeisians.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Postel, you want to jump in on that?
POSTEL: I think the one thing we should keep in mind is we have a great example of the populist party, or the People’s Party of the 1890s. Which really sounded the alarm against corporate power. It was the most important third party movement since the Civil War. And it was also an explicitly anti-monopoly, anti-corporate party. And they raise these issues that Jack is raising. That we have to get money out of politics. We have to get corporate money out of the selection of senators. So they push for the popular election of senators. They push for direct democracy legislation, civil service reform, the secret ballot. All kinds of measures, which we now know that money is able to circumvent, but which at the time was directly to get corporations out of politics.
The other thing that’s really important to think about, the populists, is they were not anti-big. They were not against the bigness of the economy. They wanted public control of the economy. And I think that’s an important distinction in the history of antimonopoly. There’s a tension between, Is the problem bigness or is it lack of public control? And the populace, they actually felt that the solution was that railroads should be run like the Post Office, that the telegraph should be run like the Post Office. That was the only way to get the corporations out [from] under popular control. And so the Post Office model was their model of economy, which is, of course, really big. And I think it’s important to know that Elizabeth Warren, for example, has been pushing for Post Office banking. In other words, banks provide services and banking services, which of course, was what the populists were advocating in the 1890s. Not breaking up the banks, but putting them under the control of the Post Pffice.
CHAKRABARTI: So Jack, I’m going to come back to you in a second. But Professor Postel, I think it was actually from our earlier producers’ conversation with you where the example of J.P. Morgan comes up. Because at the time he was called, you know, in the late 19th century, he was referred to as the nation’s banker, right? One of the most powerful, non-elected men in the country. Why is the story of what happened to J.P. Morgan kind of appropriate to understand monopolies at the time?
POSTEL: Well, J.P. Morgan was a tremendously powerful financial figure. His position wasn’t just in banking, but he controlled steel and International Harvester. All these companies were controlled by J.P. Morgan’s network. I think he was considered the most powerful financier in the country. So there is this question of the financialization of the economy, people are concerned about that. So J.P. Morgan is, by the early 20th century, is a key figure in thinking about monopolies in America. It’s important to know that, we’re going to get to this. But when the antitrust movement gained strength in the early 20th century, J.P. Morgan has its setbacks and that’s important. We’ll get to that. But he is the target, and he also has a setback. Where we have the breakup of the Northern Securities Trust. That’s a J.P. Morgan trust that’s broken up, effectively. So we’ll get to that.
CHAKRABARTI: Jack, this time period also coincides with another important American that we have to talk about. And that’s President Teddy Roosevelt, right? I mean, what did he bring to the White House that added fuel and energy to the antitrust movement in the United States?
BEATTY: Well, he brought scale. I mean, there was no opportunity for state governments to control the growth of economic enterprise. An example I started to use yesterday is in Boston, where Louis Brandeis was involved in suits against a big railroad. The railroad had huge income every year and 18,000 employees. The whole Commonwealth of Massachusetts had 6,000 employees and, you know, barely 40 million in tax returns, every year. The scale couldn’t be matched. It had to be met at the federal level.
And Roosevelt said the power of the mighty industrial overlords had increased with giant strides, while the methods of controlling, or checking abuses by them on the part of the people, through the government remained archaic and therefore practically impotent. They had to be met by federal power. And he did do that with his trust busting. And started the ball rolling that broke up Standard Oil. The big railroad case against J.P. Morgan, combined. And in general, put government, put teeth in antitrust.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let’s listen to the voice of President Teddy Roosevelt himself. This is from 1912 in a speech where Theodore Roosevelt called for a Square Deal for everyday Americans.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT [Tape]: Decent, respectable, industrious and energetic men who conduct small businesses who are retail traders, run small stores and shop, shall be able to succeed. And so the big man who is dishonest shall not be allowed to succeed at all.
CHAKRABARTI: President Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Jack, what do you hear in that?
BEATTY: Well, you know, the emphasis on saving the small man. Roosevelt talked movingly about the crushable elements at the bottom of our industrial civilization. And the Square Deal would be an effort to give them a better shot. However, as we’re going to find out, his position wasn’t let’s bust up more trusts in 1912. On the contrary, he wanted to live with bigness. And he wanted to domesticate it. And in his position, which is regulate bigness, regulate the big corporation, we see … one of the stances toward contemporary antitrust. You know, I think Khan has talked about this. You know, it isn’t so much breakup the big, as put it under more supervision. And then on the other side, there are those who say, No, you just got to break it up. That was the position of Wilson, not of TR.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Postel, we’ve got about a minute before our next break here, but I just wanted to pick up the thought. Respond to what Jack said.
POSTEL: You know, Jack is completely right. TR is known as the trust buster, but he was ambivalent about breaking up trust. His position was that, look, let’s get the big people together and sort out things. So he’s pretty famous for his position, for example, you know, during the Anthracite coal strike of 1902, bringing the coal companies into the White House, and let’s talk this over. That was his approach to this type of problem. So I think that we think of him as a trust buster. He’s more … let’s bring the bring people together, and regulate these companies. H.L. Mencken famously said about TR, he didn’t believe in democracy, he believed in government. I think what he meant by that was that TR believed in himself, as a power to arbitrate.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’ll have a lot more when we come back. This is On Point.
CHAKRABARTI: We’re taking a look at the fact that some key people in the Biden administration say that we have to rethink how we measure the harm that monopolies do. Think of it beyond harm to consumers, or harm to competition, and ask whether monopolistic consolidation in this country is harming democracy. Today, we’re taking a look at the era, a century or so ago, that gave rise to the kind of thinking that folks like the current FTC chair are espousing. I’m joined today by Jack Beatty. He’s On Point’s news analyst. And Charles Postel joins us as well. He’s a professor of history at San Francisco State University.
Now one of the things that keeps, you know, sort of coursing through my mind, gentlemen, is how did the American people know? How did they get a sense a century or a century and a half ago that the power that these monopolies had was so great that it was actually having an impact on the government of the people? How did they understand the inner workings of those monopolies in order to get that bigger picture of the relationship between economic might, and the health and well-being of their own government?
Well, part of the answer is the journalism of the time, isn’t it? So we reached out to Stephanie Gorton, who wrote a history of the so-called muckrakers, the journalists at the turn of the last century. She did that in her book Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America. And the book really focuses on the second of those three, one Ida Tarbell.
STEPHANIE GORTON: When Ida Tarbell was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania, in 1857, it wasn’t yet an oil region. In the course of her youth, commercial uses for oil began to multiply across the United States, and oil refining really came into its own as an industry. As a result, Erie County, Pennsylvania really began to flood with prospectors, with fortune hunters, with independent oil refiners, like her father. And with burgeoning companies, like Standard Oil. So they were very much part of the same community.
When she was 15 years old, the South Improvement company, which is a sweetheart deal between Standard Oil and three railroad companies, that effectively drove the independent producers and refiners of that region into bankruptcy. There was a real schism in the community between those associated with Standard Oil, and those who are trying to make it on their own. Tarbell never really recovered from that. Her father never really recovered from that. It drove them from middle class stability into a much less stable and assured future.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, just to get an idea about how much power Standard Oil had, a little later, roughly 1910-1911, Standard Oil controlled more than 85% of the nation’s national capacity for refining oil. But even before that, Ida Tarbell watched her father go into bankruptcy at the hands of John D. Rockefeller. And that made a rebel out of Tarbell.
GORTON: It was around that time that she made a vow that she would never marry. She would never depend on someone else to make her money. And she was really unusual for the time of having seen so much, and having those ambitions.
CHAKRABARTI: She went to Paris in her early 30s to be a freelance writer, but then came the so-called panic of 1893. And it was impossible for Tarbell to make a living freelancing in Paris. So she came back to the United States.
GORTON: And that’s when she took a staff writer job at McClure’s magazine. She started out really as an entertainment writer. She was writing these serialized biographies of Napoleon, of Abraham Lincoln, and then McClure’s realized it was a bit behind the curve in covering this issue with the trusts, that this was a huge topic in the news media. The growth of the great monopolies, of the beef trust, the sugar trust, of oil, and they needed a story on the trusts and fast.
Tarbell was their best and most experienced investigative writer at the time, and she was given an assignment of three articles. She ended up taking this much deeper and writing a much more comprehensive story. She wrote 19 articles, a two volume book about Standard Oil, making it a landmark work that led directly to the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911.
CHAKRABARTI: And Gorton says that Tarbell held herself to a much higher standard of journalism than was usual for those times. Fact checking, she confirmed her story with other sources, and she was dogged.
GORTON: She became close to Rockefeller’s head PR person Henry Rogers. And for a couple of years, Rogers would smuggle her to the Standard Oil offices, and they’d have these secret interviews where she would try to confirm her findings with him. And he was also, she hoped, her avenue to meeting Rockefeller himself. Eventually, though, that never came to pass. She ended up sneaking into a church service where he was also in attendance, to try and write her personal impressions of him.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, it might be easy to assume that more than a century ago, digging into the business of a massive economic titan like Rockefeller as a woman, Tarbell might have faced some insurmountable odds. But not so, says biographer Stephanie Gorton.
GORTON: I will say there are some ways in which being a woman may have worked in her favor. In that interviewees were perhaps less threatened by her, or more willing to meet with her just on a lark, out of curiosity. And when she showed up, she could be very disarming. I think one listener at a lecture tour described her as your favorite aunt, or Jo March all grown up. She was not a pretentious or formidable person at all.
CHAKRABARTI: And if anything, Ida Tarbell got the most criticism from other journalists.
GORTON: She encountered doubts from fellow journalists, including the Atlantic journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd, who’d written about Standard Oil previously. Eventually, he wrote her a letter of admiration, saying, When you get through with Johnny, I don’t think there will be very much left of him, except something resembling one of his own grease spots.
CHAKRABARTI: And in a sense, that was true because, as we’ve noted in that 1911 case against Standard Oil, the company was broken up into 34 different pieces. So that was Stephanie Gorton, author of Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America. Jack Beatty, why is it important to understand the role of Tarbell and the other muckrakers of the time?
BEATTY: Well, her father, Franklin, he was put out of business by Rockefeller. But he retaliated by joining up with vigilantes to sabotage Standard’s oil tank. And of course, he retaliated by planting the time bomb of his daughter’s contempt. She succeeded in really tarring Rockefeller, lastingly. His biographer, most recent biographer Ron Chernow, says America’s most private man was turned into its most public and hated figure by her writing. All the depredations, he writes, of a long career, everything Rockefeller had thought safely behind him, rose up before him in haunting and memorable detail. Such was the power of the word. And Rockefeller’s reputation never recovered. He was widely execrated. The most unpopular man in America, right through most of his life.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, so Charles Postel. I feel like we need to move forward just a couple of years here. We never have enough time to go in as much depth as I’d like, but the Standard Oil case, and if I have my days right, the Morgan case as well. These all came because of the Sherman Act and what the Clayton Act? Is that in the similar, in the same time period? But before Louis Brandeis joins the Supreme Court, do I have my dates right there?
POSTEL: OK. So you have your dates right. The Clayton Act is actually 1914. So that titans, that shores up the weaknesses in the Sherman Act, which really is quite useless for breaking up the trust earlier on. And then Brandeis is on the court later.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. So the reason I ask is that we do need to spend a couple of minutes talking about Louis Brandeis himself. Because as I mentioned at the top, the current folks, the three names that we mentioned in the Biden administration, are kind of loosely called part of this new Brandeis movement. So by the time Louis Brandeis becomes a justice on the Supreme Court in 1916, what role does he play in this, you know, decades-long movement against monopolistic power of this country?
POSTEL: Brandeis’s real role is as an advocate against bigness. And he really comes in as a chief theorist and partisan of the idea that bigness is bad. The curse of bigness, he calls it. And so a lot of the move towards regulation and control is connected to the name of Brandeis as an advocate before he’s on the court.
CHAKRABARTI: OK. I appreciate the correction. It’s actually really important that we get this right.
POSTEL: So one way to think about this is that Brandeis is part of an actual much broader movement and involves progressive Republicans like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Hiram Johnson of California, progressive Democrats like William Jennings Bryan. And that becomes sort of this … convergence of politics. And Brandeis is and I think you could say, a leading theorist and advocate of this convergence. But in 1912, you have an election and it’s the strangest election in American history. Because 75% of the votes go to progressive, anti-corporate, antitrust candidates.
The Bull Moose Party of Teddy Roosevelt, the Socialist Party of of Eugene Debs and of course, the victorious party of Woodrow Wilson. And Woodrow Wilson is allied with Brandeis, and they agree with this curse of bigness. But if you think about that election of 1912, it sweeps in a National Legislature, National Congress that enacts the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Trade Commission Act 1914 and the Antitrust Act of 1940. This is really the high watermark of government taking the reins, trying to regulate the trusts that regulate corporations in America.
CHAKRABARTI: Jack, let me turn to you to just have you chime in here on Louis Brandeis. And again, I appreciate Professor Postel correcting me here even before he ascends to the Supreme Court in helping shape sort of the nation’s consciousness around monopoly power.
BEATTY: Yes, he spoke of industrial liberty. And he wrote that you can have great concentrations of economic power or you can have democracy, you can’t have both. That very almost language could come out of the current crop of his people. In the Biden administration, we have talked about Lina Khan and others. And you can hear his, if you will, his savviness about the way that romance with bigness can just corrupt government. When Woodrow Wilson in 1912, remember TR wanted the corporation almost to become an arm of government.
And Woodrow Wilson says, Well, if the government is to tell big businessmen how to run their business, then don’t you see that big businessmen have to get closer to government, even closer than now? Don’t you see that they must capture the government in order not to be restrained by it too much? You know, that could apply to Mark Zuckerberg. He has stood before Congress and said, Regulate me. Well, he really means is let me shape the regulation that I will live under and all will be fine. Brandeis’s skepticism here is precisely about the evils that can arise from too close [an] … association of government with bigness.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so we just have a few minutes left to go. I say with sorrow because this is such a fascinating conversation. But I want to actually draw all we’ve heard and put it right back in the current context. Professor Postel, how would you measure the success of the several decades that we we covered here? Were they fully effective in decoupling or monopolistic power from or breaking up monopolistic power and its effects on on democracy?
POSTEL: Well, that’s a really good question, I mean, to me, it’s really problematic. Think about the great victory of breaking up Standard Oil, when it was broken up into 34 companies. But the big ones turned into Chevron and Mobil and Exxon and that was the end result of breaking up Standard Oil. It came back as big and strong as ever. And so I think the real question is, I think the question that we still face. Is it a question of breaking up, say, Amazon or is it a question of regulating and controlling Amazon? And I’m of the 19th century former point of view. Farmers much preferred the Montgomery Ward Catalog business model to the small business model. They thought that was great. It was cheaper, more choices.
But they also wanted it to be controlled by them, like controlled by the people. And that was their idea of co-operative catalog businesses. So I think we still face that issue. Is the real problem bigness or is that a question of public control of companies? And I think some of the most successful things that came out of that era were things like Post Office banking. It was eventually dismantled, but that’s a really great idea. If we have this very tough banking system for people without great means in this country. If you don’t have a lot of money, banking is very expensive and very difficult.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so the issue isn’t so much as he said bigness, but power. Jack, I do want to give you the last 30 seconds here. Go ahead, Jack.
BEATTY: I think that’s exactly right. It’s trying to live with power, accepting the necessity, the extra ability of scale, and scope and production. These are all good things, but you’ve got to live with them. You’ve got to domesticate them. You’ve got to make them safe for democracy.
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