Louis and Goliath.

AuthorMacGillis, Alec
PositionOn political books - The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age - Louis Brandeis - Book review

Brandeis, the legendary jurist, recognized the broader spiritual and political cost of economic concentration. Today, that's more relevant than ever.

The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age

by Tim Wu

Columbia Global Reports, 154 pp.

We associate Louis Brandeis most with Boston. The legendary Supreme Court justice attended law school at Harvard, opened his private practice on Devonshire Street, and had a college named for him in the city's suburbs. But as Tim Wu reminds us in his new book, The Curse of Bigness, the place that shaped Brandeis's most influential thinking was not Boston but the smaller city where he grew up: Louisville, Kentucky. It was there that his Prague-born father, Adolph, decided to settle and came to prosper as a grain merchant. And it was there that Louis developed an abiding attachment to the American ideal of the level playing field.

"Louisville was no world capital, nor the seat of any corporate empire, but nonetheless a flourishing regional center, in a United States far more economically decentralized than today's," writes Wu. "It was, economically speaking, dominated by no few large concerns but a multitude of small producers." Wu quotes biographer Melvin Urofsky, who wrote that Louisville seemed to Brandeis "the quintessential democratic society, in which individuals ... could do well by dint of their intelligence and perseverance."

The Curse of Bigness is intended to show how democratic society is threatened today by a new wave of "large concerns," and to make the case for dismantling them. (The title is a reference to Brandeis's famous evocation of the problem of monopolies.) Wu, a law professor at Columbia, is well suited to the task. In recent years, most notably with his 2016 book, The Attention Merchants, he has distinguished himself by combining analysis of the tech giants with a lyrical evocation of the changes they are inflicting on our daily lives, social interactions, and politics.

Wu's thesis is straightforward and admonitory: we are, he argues, reenacting the economic concentration of the Gilded Era, with the only difference being that today's "insensitive behemoths" traffic primarily in clicks and online sales rather than railroads and oil. And to overcome these goliaths, we need to channel the trustbusters of that earlier era--above all Brandeis, who, with what Wu calls his "sensitivity to human ends," was among the first to identify the broader spiritual and political cost of...

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