The Curse of Bigness is a primer for a more egalitarian America, the like of which we have never seen.
Louis Brandeis believed that the ideal of democracy should be the “development of the individual for his own and the common good.” As a small business lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 19th century, he lived in a bustling American city that embodied his belief that people had a Constitutionally guaranteed right to live, not to just “exist.” As Tim Wu, the author of the excellent The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, puts it, “Brandeis discovered a stronger faith in decentralized systems, in the organic growth of business, and, for want of a better word, in ‘smallness.’” He asserted that the freedoms in this country extended beyond just the public sector where the government could not oppress speech, religion, assembly, et al., but also to the private sector. The monopolies and corporate trusts of the day—embodied by Standard Oil and its cunning founder, John D. Rockefeller—represented the bigness in opposition to Brandeis’ beliefs, and were the entities that the future Supreme Court justice would spend his legal life battling.
Wu resurrects Brandeis from the obscurity of 20th-century legal history to make him a spiritual protagonist in his slim volume. In all his work, Wu has a great talent for lacing together historical threads from the present to the past, as well as the ability to demystify the spectacle of the moment with its historical predecessors. He is a wholly accessible instructor, particularly patient with a culture that believes everything that’s happening to it is unprecedented, including the economy. This is rarely ever true. What is happening now has happened before, so if Twitter existed during the Gilded Age, circa 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes would be tweeting about the economy and John D. Rockefeller’s fortune—essentially four times that of Jeff Bezos in current dollars—would be heaped with lavish praise. While massive and undoubtedly harmful, Amazon has nothing on Standard Oil.
The Gilded Age was a time of monopolies and corporate trusts. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie led trusts that controlled oil, steel and finance and amassed fortunes. They were ruthless practitioners of an economics eugenics movement where perceived weakness was consolidated out of the economy. Rockefeller and his fellows were all-consuming, but believed that they were ultimately building a better, more efficient society. It was laissez-faire, social Darwinism and survival of the fittest. A great deal of their rhetoric would sound at home in the board rooms of Silicon Valley today.
Brandeis and others of his time saw the phenomena of the trusts and monopoly power as a new form of slavery. The concentration of wealth in a very few hands leaves little for those outside the club. Historically, money has never voluntarily trickled down from the top to the middle and bottom. Extreme disparity in wealth is an affront to the Brandeisian vision of how democracy and economy should function together to the benefit of all. Each should be equally egalitarian pursuits, according to his point-of-view, but a person cannot live their best life if they are economically unstable. It was true in the 1890s and it is true today.
Wu shows that history provides a fairly clear road map about how to return the economy to something more right-sized and competitive and it begins with us, the citizenry, and our elected officials learning to fall in love with the antitrust laws of the 20th century. Not only must these laws be embraced, but they must be refined for the new century and enforced. Despite what the Kochs, Bezos, Buffetts, Gates and those others who benefit the most from the current reality want to believe, economies are not ordained from above. An economy is an act of imagination. People decide what it is for and who should benefit from its construction. After World War II, the conditions existed to create a thriving middle class, and the government pursued it to keep the country from post-war, economic collapse. It was a very successful social experiment though the redistribution of wealth failed to sufficiently cross lines of race and gender. People were just fighting for some real equality when that experiment was replaced by a more reactionary one.
The dismantling of the regulatory state has not been the sole province of the Trump administration. He is just the final act of a project that began with Ronald Reagan. As Wu states, since the 1980s, we have been recreating the economic and political conditions for a new Gilded Age, and “remain in grave danger of repeating the signature errors of the twentieth century.” The rise of nationalism and right wing ideologies in America and other advanced democracies is rooted in extreme economic inequality. When people are suffering and not being heard by their political leaders, they will turn to a supposed outsider who they believe will fight for them. History shows us this isn’t so. When dictators rise to power, the elites aren’t the ones to suffer. We are watching it happen right now in our own country.
What Wu gives us here is the through line from Brandeis to Teddy Roosevelt, the original trustbuster, to the great victories of the antitrust laws, as well as the petty implementations that provided the opportunities for the eventual defanging of the many antitrust acts. The Curse of Bigness is a primer for a more egalitarian America, the like of which we have never seen. Wu offers the gift of optimism even though the project he outlines seems impossible. Antitrust battles take years and the corporations often have greater resources than the government, but that was true in Brandeis’ time and he and his colleagues made history. They knew that they wouldn’t lose anything if they were free. Now it’s time for all of us to be free.