Scholars reflect back on Brandeis’ labor legacy
In continuing to celebrate the legacy of Justice Louis D. Brandeis during the year that marks the 100th anniversary of his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1916, several scholars gathered to discuss his economic influence on Monday in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. At the event, titled “Citizenship and the Economy: Labor, Inequality and Bigness,” panelists Richard Adelstein, Alexis Goldstein and Jeffrey Rosen spoke about Brandeis’ legacy in the economy and his effect on their work. Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life Prof. Daniel Terris (PAX) moderated the panel, and Prof. Elizabeth Brainerd (WGS) was the Brandeis Commentator at the event.
Terris opened the event, filling in for Interim Dean of the Heller School Marty Krauss. He explained how Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court during an election year. However, in contrast to the struggle President Obama is currently facing in appointing a Supreme Court Justice, “no one in that year questioned the President’s right to make the appointment or the Senate’s duty to consider it,” Terris said.
Terris then moved into his other role of the afternoon as moderator, commenting that the series of events honoring Brandeis this year, titled “Then and Now,” are “designed to bring a mixture of scholars, journalists, legal professionals and other social political actors for an exchange of views. … We wanted to explore Louis Brandeis’ work and life and thought and actions, but also how they play out today, and so the ‘then and now’ is very much part of this.”
Each panelist then expressed how Brandeis had influenced them and spoke about their work. Rosen, the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center and a professor of Law at George Washington University, will be publishing a biography of Brandeis in June. He explained that Brandeis was essentially the “Jewish Jefferson,” as he opposed monopolies and centralized government. He said of Brandeis, “I think the American prophet’s hour has come around at last. I think there is no one who has more to teach us about the dangers of corporate governmental bigness and the need to translate the constitution in light of privacy and technology.” He then quoted Brandeis, adding, “I always inspire myself by Brandeis’ notion that although the task ahead is challenging, ‘if we are governed by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold.’”
Adelstein, a professor of economics at Wesleyan University, described Brandeis as “the last autonomist,” explaining that at the turn of the century, Americans chose big business and wealth over Jeffersonian traditionalism and that those pushing for a smaller economy and government were autonomists. He quoted Brandeis’ disappointing realization that “Americans hated monopoly and loved bigness” and explained that Brandeis spent the rest of his career fighting monopolies. He added that Brandeis “would not be a happy camper” today but that he would appreciate the climate change movement because, according to Adelstein, he was a firm believer in science and on being at the forefront of social change.
Finally Goldstein, a senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, said she was particularly interested in Brandeis’ idea of the power of corporations to “dominate the state,” especially in light of the current election and the debates over how much power corporations should hold in American politics and policy. She said she was inspired by Brandeis’ 1905 to 1914 fight against J.P. Morgan and his proposed New Haven Railroad merger, which Brandeis viewed as a potentially dangerous monopoly. She said that it took Brandeis nine years to win that fight and that she found that encouraging because he lost a lot along the way but still came out victorious. She pointed out that it has only been eight years since the financial crisis in 2008, so there is still plenty of time for recovery.
Following the panelists’ statements, they continued to discuss Brandeis’ legacy in American economics and policy. Then, audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions. Several audience members asked what Brandeis would think about the University’s investment in fossil fuels, given the climate change crisis. Brainerd said that while no one could know what Brandeis would have truly thought, she assumes that he would have wanted the University to be more progressive in its efforts.
The next event in the “Louis D. Brandeis: Then and Now” series will be called “Privacy, Technology and the Modern Self” and will be held on Monday, March 21.