The book I’m reading is more hagiography than biography, but Brandeis was a progressive lawyer and Supreme Court Justice and yet an opponent of FDR on several economic issues. Brandeis’ ideas about democracy are Jeffersonian, but it did not lead him in the direction of the Jacksonians.
His basic ideas are about sustainable democracy, and focus on two ideas. The first is that big corporations and big government are equally bad. Democracy and capitalism both need to be grounded in the local or lose touch with their voters, consumers, and workers. Big organizations can overwhelm individuals with brute force (no matter the form of force), so for democracy to continue there has to be equal bargaining positions. Unions allow workers to bargain as equals with managers, and NGOs like the ACLU allow individuals to stand up to their government. Yet, I would conclude, if a union is too big and powerful, its own management can lose touch with its members. So again, big is bad. “Too big to fail” could be a more recent example of why we shouldn’t allow particular corporations to be so big they become black holes for our economy, swallowing up investors’ money and government bailouts alike.
If someone reading this is a fan of Ayn Rand, I know she would argue that a worker and a manager should be able to argue as equal individuals without unions. However, Rand made two assumptions that have not panned out. The first is that employers would want to pay better workers more money, which has only turned out to be generally true in high stakes fields with a shortage of experts. The second is that employers are willing to use reason instead of power in their negotiations, which, as it turns out, also has severe limitations. In “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand was not describing how business people do behave, she was describing how she thought they should behave. That doesn’t mean they always do.
Brandeis other big idea is that education is vital to democracy. If people do not understand their own history, and I would argue many Americans do not, how can they avoid making the same mistakes? If people do not understand science, and I would argue many Americans do not, how can they cope with our changing future and shrug off the superstitions that promote discrimination against gays, women, and minorities?
Brandeis believes education is as much a private duty of citizenship as it is a public duty to children. If you have not educated yourself on the topics of the day, you have failed in your first obligation as a voter. A healthy democracy is also a meritocracy because the voters are well read.
I know many people are promoting the idea of schools simply as training facilities, where all students should learn is what they need to get a job, but reading William Du Bois’ essays I’ve learned that this educational philosophy is what the pre-Civil Rights South tried to impose upon African American schools. The whites only wanted blacks to know enough to be workers, and forget Latin, Greek, and advanced math, because if blacks became great lawyers, scholars, and politicians, those educated blacks would become the core of the resistance. In slavery days it was the death penalty in many states to teach blacks how to read, even if the book in question was “The Bible.”
Now I know that thousands of people only go to college so they can get a job as a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, but if their minds are not opened by exposure to the humanities and the history of oppression, they will have little more understanding of the need for civil rights, gay rights, or women’s rights than a high school dropout, and in many cases less because the higher you rise in our society the more you are protected by money. If you don’t believe me, just look at our voting statistics. Closing our minds from new ideas means closing us off from wider possibilities.
The full title of Jeffrey Rosen’s book is “Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet,” which becomes a bit of a stretch as one reads. Brandeis predicted the Great Depression within two years and for reasons that also explain the Great Recession; unfortunately those reasons include standard conservative policies of excessive deregulation and tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class and corporate consolidation which is even worse now than then. Brandeis also predicted that technology would expand the government’s ability to spy on our lives, but sometimes he was just lucky because he’d misunderstood the science. He was also a Zionist, but he had hoped a future Israel would an agrarian, Jeffersonian democracy with full rights accorded to the Palestinians. He had read Hebrew history through the lens of the Enlightenment and thus misunderstood both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism.
In any event, he is one of the Justices most often referenced in later Supreme Courts on both sides of the ideological divide, so his influence is undeniable.