Commentary — January 27, 2012, 12:01 pm

Into the Harper’s Archive: On Monopolies

Our February cover story, “Killing the Competition,” by long-time contributor Barry C. Lynn, is on the emergence of new digital monopolies. “Because of the overthrow of our antimonopoly laws a generation ago,” Lynn notes, we “find ourselves subject to the ever more autocratic whims of the individuals who run our giant business corporations.” The piece has been excerpted here, and the full story is available to subscribers here.

Harper’s has been reporting on monopoly capitalism almost since the magazine’s founding in 1850, criticizing the system whenever it appeared to be concentrating too much power in the hands of a greedy few, and sometimes spurring change. Our first significant piece on the subject was a two-part essay by Richard T. Ely on railway trusts, which ran in 1886. (Subscribers can read part one here, and part two here.) “I propose to show in these articles,” Ely wrote, “that our abominable no-system of railways has brought the American people to a condition of one-sided dependence upon corporations, which too often renders our nominal freedom illusory.” The following year, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which created the Interstate Commerce Commission and placed it in charge of railway regulation, in turn paving the way for the landmark Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

More famously, our sister periodical, Harper’s Weekly, published a multi-part series by Louis D. Brandeis shortly before the First World War on the subject of monopoly capitalism. The articles, based on revelations from the congressional Pujo Committee, were collected as Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, which is available at the website of the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at Louisville University. As the school notes, Other People’s Money remains in print nearly a hundred years after it was first published. Brandeis’s biographer, Melvin Urofsky, suggested why this is so in an op-ed for the New York Times, linking the conditions about which Brandeis was writing to the financial system of 2007:

Our current crisis, after all, was in part fueled by bankers making big gambles with other people’s cash…. This was exactly the kind of behavior that Brandeis despised…. [H]e saw the bankers of his time dodging failure by manipulating the marketplace at the expense of smaller entrepreneurs and consumers.

Brandeis, who was Woodrow Wilson’s economic adviser when the book was published, was instrumental in Wilson’s antimonopoly efforts, notably the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, an overdue update to Sherman.

Urofsky notes that Brandeis’s Harper’s work became relevant again during the Great Depression, when Other People’s Money was reissued at a low price. “Many of those who came to Washington to work on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal read it,” he writes. “The New Deal laws, particularly the Glass–Steagall and the Securities Exchange Acts, imposed long overdue regulation of the banking system, required the separation of banking from stock brokerage, and established the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate the stock markets.”

The monthly edition of Harper’s continued to publish anti-monopoly pieces through the Depression and afterward: Saul Nelson’s deconstruction of the term monopoly, in 1938; “How Big Is Too Big?” by renowned management theorist Peter Drucker, in 1950; Milton Viorst’s “Gentlemen Prefer Monopoly: The impotence of the antitrust laws” in 1972; and “Busting the Media Trusts,” by Kevin P. Phillips, in 1977. And in advance of the Justice Department’s 1999 antitrust suit against Microsoft, we tweaked Bill Gates’s beard specs with “Selling Windows to the World,” a Reading tracing a UCLA undergraduate’s attempts to buy a PC with an operating system other than Microsoft Windows.

“Killing the Competition” follows from this concern with the tech economy, scrutinizing Apple, Amazon, and other digital titans. In the past decade we’ve published three other pieces by Lynn as well, one of them, on the antitrust case against Wal-Mart, available for free here. “I was able to write these pieces,” Lynn told us, “only because Harper’s exists.”

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