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‘The Curse of Bigness’ Review: Revisiting the Gilded Age

 |  December 2, 2018
R. Epstein reviews “The Curse of Bigness”
By Tim Wu
Before his 1916 appointment to the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis was the nation’s most prominent critic of large concentrations of wealth and power. Brandeis coined the phrase “the curse of business” to express his outright hostility to monopoly power, which he equated with the bigness of the new industrial trusts in railroads, oil, steel and tobacco. Brandeis wrote that “competition is in no sense consistent with large-scale production and distribution”; that such monopolies are secured by “cut-throat competition, espionage, doing business as fake independents, the making of exclusive contracts”; and that America must place “ample power in a government board to aid the small man as against his mighty opponent.”

Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University’s law school, is Brandeis’s most avid contemporary disciple. In “The Curse of Bigness,” he borrows Brandeis’s impassioned rhetoric to express his fear that a new Gilded Age is upon us, with Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon appearing as the successors to the dominant trusts of more than 100 years ago. By blindly forgetting the lessons of history, we now face, in Mr. Wu’s words, “extreme economic concentration,” which “yields gross inequality and material suffering, feeding an appetite for nationalistic and extremist leadership.”

Mr. Wu writes with elegance, conviction, knowledge—and certitude. But he goes over the top in his effort to slay the dragon of the so-called Chicago School of antitrust analysis, which finds its clearest expression in the late Robert Bork’s influential 1978 book, “The Antitrust Paradox.” Bork and the Chicago School insist that “consumer welfare” should be the sole standard for antitrust law. Nothing else matters.

There are, of course, some limited points on which Mr. Wu accepts Bork’s conclusions. Both men oppose monopoly power whenever it occurs. Mr. Wu seems to accept Bork’s concern that the over-enforcement of the antitrust law led to perverse Supreme Court decisions, like Brown Shoe (1962) and Von’sGrocery (1966). Both cases struck down mergers between tiny firms whose efficiency gains dwarfed any supposed social losses from increased market concentration.