The Course of Bigness

Why Louis Brandeis is on my necktie.

By Andrei Cherny

Tagged Louis Brandeis

A prominent newspaper columnist once told me that one of the big differences between conservatives and progressives was that, during the heyday of the Reagan years, young conservative activists would wear neckties emblazoned with the face of their favorite philosophers–thinkers like Hayek, Burke, and Smith. Most progressives, he implied, are not grounded in the same sense of history and do not think as deeply about their intellectual roots. “Who’s on your tie?” he asked.

There are any number of snarky responses progressives can give to this question. We can reply that we are more likely to be wearing T-shirts and jeans than suits and ties, or that we would rather roll up our sleeves than button down our collar. We can point out all the ways that modern-day conservatives have failed to live up to the intellectual heritage of their philosophical forbears. We can take comfort in having better fashion sense than a silk-screened image of a 200-year-old dead man swinging from our necks.

But the question is an important one, and it deserves a real answer. On one level, the charge that progressives, in our rush to “make the world over again” (Ahem! Thomas Paine, 1776), brush past that which came before us and that conservatives, in their defense of the established, pay greater fealty at the altars of their ancestors is not a novel one. “Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841. “Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry.” Nevertheless, there is truth to the charge that, over the past generation, progressives have too often failed to link our work to the broad sweep of history and the foundation of ideas.

At one time, during the period described by Kevin Mattson in the Winter 2007 issue of Democracy [“History Lessons”], progressive historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Hofstadter shaped the way Americans look at themselves. But since the mid-1970s, progressivism has been adrift. In a post-industrial America, we have been without the moorings that once connected us to our past and our basic intellectual underpinnings, so we have changed the subject: talking about programs instead of principles; our goals instead of our guidelines. This avoids answers, but it begs questions. Progressives need to relate their work to the story of American history and those that came before us.

So, who should be on our tie? The rules of the game that the columnist outlined to me stated that presidents and political activists were out–no Thomas Jefferson, no Franklin Roosevelt, no Martin Luther King Jr., no Jane Addams. With this in mind, I’m putting Louis Brandeis around my neck.

Brandeis is remembered today, if at all, as the “People’s Lawyer” who became a member of the Supreme Court. But in a long career before donning his judicial robes, Brandeis established himself as one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals–with warnings to both corporate monopolists and the reformers that sought to battle them. His central concern was that the rise of the big businesses of industrial America would rob citizens of their democratic power to make decisions about their own lives. But he also feared that–with the best of intentions–progressives would follow the advice of former President Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly, author of The Promise of American Life, and establish a bigger government to check the power of big business–a government as centralized, hierarchical, and regimented as the assembly-line factories of the day and one that provided Americans with the kind of uniform services they found so appealing in the era’s cutting-edge companies. Such a government, Croly argued, was “the natural consequence of the increasing centralization of American industrial, political, and social life.”

Brandeis worried that a centralized power in Washington could be as much of a threat to the fullness of American democracy as large corporations. Large entities, however noble their intentions, drowned out the say and overpowered the strength of individual citizens, allowing their civic and entrepreneurial muscles to atrophy. “The citizen would have to be as wary of the evil of bigness in government as in business,” he said. This was, in Brandeis’ famous term, “the curse of bigness.” Instead, he had a different idea: government activism dedicated to breaking up the concentrated power of the new industrial corporations, giving more power to individuals, and fashioning economic policies that made possible strong citizens and vibrant communities. Where Croly wanted to employ Goliath for progressive aims, Brandeis wanted to arm David.

In the 1912 presidential campaign, these two views squared off in a titanic struggle over the future of progressivism, with Brandeis as Woodrow Wilson’s intellectual cornerman and Croly as Roosevelt’s. Wilson won the election, but in office he adopted the Croly view. By the time Wilson left the White House, the number of federal employees would grow more than twice as much in the preceding 50 years (largely through Wilson’s efforts) than it would, on a percentage basis, over the next 50 years of New Deals and Great Societies.

Brandeis–from his perch on the Supreme Court–fought to slow the growth of top-down government and instead advocated innovation in places where citizens could have more control, such as the “laboratories” of state government. “As for your young men,” he told New Deal ringleader Tommy Corcoran, “you call them together and tell them to get out of Washington–tell them to go home, back to the states. That is where they must do their work.” The idealistic, ambitious young men did not take kindly to Brandeis’ suggestion that they return to the “hinterlands” from whence they had come. “But, Mister Justice–Fargo, North Dakota?” asked one. Another whined, “I have no hinterland. I’m from New York City.” “That,” Brandeis haughtily replied, “is your misfortune.”

Of course, the New Dealers and their descendants did not go home, and we should count ourselves lucky that they stayed. In the battle of ideas, Goliath won, and it was right that he did. The vision of big government that progressives built did so much that was good: Social Security, the G.I. Bill, and Medicare, to name just a few of its offspring. Brandeis was wrong for his time–a country thrilling to the Model T and other products of the regimented, assembly-line economy deserved government programs that lived by the same iron logic of the industrial age.

So why should we put Louis Brandeis on our ties? Because almost a century later, his prescriptions are right for our time. The “curse of bigness” in government that he predicted has come to pass, and at the same time, the course of bigness has reversed itself. Over the past six years, Americans have learned that, to paraphrase Gerald Ford’s dictum, a government big enough to accomplish everything progressives wanted was also big enough to accomplish much that they did not. Indeed, the rise of K Street conservatism was made possible by the growth of the federal government. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled during the Bush years, and those lobbyists have earned their keep. Federal outlays for the same period have increased nearly a third. Tax breaks for the oil industry, legislation to insulate companies from competition, and prohibitions on the federal government from negotiating lower prescription-drug costs have been well documented. Special subsidies and tax giveaways alone now add up to an estimated $65 billion a year.

The sleaze in Washington is not just a product of the nefarious activities of Jack Abramoff. It has become institutionalized, leeching off big government itself. A generation ago political scientist Theodore Lowi wrote that Washington had spawned “iron triangles” of congressional powerbrokers, government bureaucrats, and interest group advocates that kept out the voices of everyday people. Today, there is a new iron triangle formed by big business, big government, and the lobbyists who travel between–and feed off–both. Breaking this cabal will require more than the worthy but tremulous reform measures proposed by the new Democratic majority in Congress. It will entail taking power out of Washington and putting it into the hands of communities and individuals–not reducing the scope of government activism, but dispersing it.

At the same time that big has proven bad in the realm of politics, the economic life of America and the daily lives of Americans have fundamentally transformed in ways that make Brandeis’ vision possible. Today, as business writer Seth Godin points out in his new book, Small Is the New Big, the course of commercial bigness has reversed. The companies driving the economy are not the behemoths but the nimble. “American Airlines (big),” Godin writes, “is getting creamed by JetBlue (think small).” To be clear, Brandeis saw the “bigness” he feared not so much in the sheer number of a corporation’s employees or size of its net profits, but in qualitative terms. The Ford Motor Company was fundamentally different not only for its size but in the way its size allowed it to treat consumers like identical cogs in the machinery. While Henry Ford’s Model T was beloved for it uniformity–it famously came in only one color, black–the cutting-edge products and services of our own time resemble MySpace, YouTube, and iPods (the “i” stands for “individual”), all of which, as their names imply, are built on giving people more control and decision-making power.

The confluence of these two trends–the vindication of Brandeis’ fear of corporate capture of big government and a changing economy that is rushing away from centralized bigness–means that modern progressives finally have the opportunity to do more than offer tinkers to conservative government. They can set forward a new approach that stands in opposition to both big government and big business and that helps individuals and local communities set their own course.

What would such an agenda look like? First, it would work to give Americans more say and power when it comes to the workplace and the marketplace. Some long-standing Democratic ideas, such as the Patient’s Bill of Rights, and some newer ones, such as forcing cable companies to allow consumers to choose which channels they want on an á la carte basis, are a good start.

Second, it would recognize that the goal of empowering citizens and communities has been undermined not only by big business’ HMOs but by big government’s HHSs and HUDs. Already, progressives have begun talking about ideas that would disperse governmental power, such as Al Gore’s plan to convert every public school in America into a locally controlled, specially tailored charter school, or health-care plans (such as the experiment being attempted in Massachusetts) that would not only hold down high costs and expand coverage, but also give families more power and options.

Third, a Brandeis-style progressivism for the twenty-first century would mean an economic policy built on promoting entrepreneurialism and entrepreneurs–on small businesses, free agents, and start-ups that fuel innovation and create jobs–instead of simply fighting about the amount of regulation to layer on, and the amount of subsidies to dispense to, big industrial corporations.

Fourth, it would offer more control to states and–more crucially–the rural communities, small towns, and urban neighborhoods that so often feel at the mercy of distant decisions. This is all the more important because so much that is positive in dealing with our greatest social challenges is coming from the work of local social entrepreneurs and the organizations they are building. In fact, many of the national challenges America faces require precisely such decentralized action. Most threats to clean air and water and the global climate come from “non-point” local sources instead of from the big factories regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The front lines of national defense against further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil are local police and fire departments and nongovernmental entities guarding chemical plans and ports. Communities around the nation are finding that individual and local action is far more effective in dealing with social issues like drug addiction, welfare dependency, and crime than centralized bureaucracies.

Taking Brandeis as our inspiration, progressives can put forward a vision of government that is activist without being elitist, empowers people instead of just protecting them, and stands on the side of individuals and communities without hovering over them. The course of bigness has changed direction. This is the moment to not only put Brandeis on our ties, but to put his vision of adjusting “our institutions to the wee size of man” into practice.

Read more about Louis Brandeis

Andrei Cherny is the author of The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour.

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