PROPHETS OF REGULATION: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis, Alfred E. Kahn by Thomas K. McGraw
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PROPHETS OF REGULATION: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis, Alfred E. Kahn

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Here's what imaginative and systematic historical inquiry can bring to a matter of perpetual controversy (and frequent tedium). McGraw, a historian at Harvard Business School and author of TVA and the Power Fight, 1933-1939, is a scholar of regulation. He is also a gifted writer and energetic thinker, alert to those qualities in others. Thus, he has selected four figures to span American regulatory history and exemplify its four major periods: Charles Francis Adams, railway reformer in the Gilded Age; Louis Brandeis, antitrust catalyst in the Progressive Era; James Landis, securities-industry watchdog during the Depression; and Alfred Kahn, reformer-of-reform in the conflicted 1970s. Linking the stories of these four--seamless webs of biography and current events, detail and analysis--are transitional, middle-distance chapters. And the whole reflects McGraw's belief in multi-causation, complexity, irreconcilable conflict, flux; what he calls, in his concluding chapter, the ""ongoing need to work out the inevitable tradeoff between the good of the whole society. . . and the rights of the individual,"" between economic efficiency and legal due process. McGraw does not think, further, that regulation can be said to have ""failed""; rather (like the court or the presidency), ""individual regulatory experiments and episodes must be judged against a standard true to the particular historical moment."" By that standard, Adams and Kahn, the lesser-known of the four, provide examples of notable success (if some-times transient, sometimes provisional) in following the course McGraw advocates: tailoring regulatory strategies to industry conditions. Adams' career, in this treatment, is perhaps the most fascinating. After an erratic youth and Civil-War tempering, Adams decided to stake his future on writing and to ""attach myself [to] the railroad system as the most developing force and largest field of the day."" Perceiving the railroad's ""almost unlimited economies of scale,"" he became convinced that competition and cheap transportation were incompatible. He made his name with a muckraking article (""Chapter of Erie""), and made a public regulatory role for himself as a proponent of the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners. Then, as its leading member, he was successful in negotiating safety-reform and using disclosure and market forces to influence rate-structures--but unable to settle labor disputes ""from a premise of attainable harmony."" (Subsequently, from a combination of peevishness and arrogance, he became a wealthy railroad investor, president of the Union Pacific, and an opponent of the very reforming forces he had helped to unleash.) McGraw finds parallels in the career of economist Kahn (by general contrast with legal luminaries Brandeis and Landis): his commitment to ""marginal-cost pricing""; his rationalization of utility and telephone rates in New York State (e.g., different pricing for peak and off-hours, payment for information service); his quick, wholesale airline deregulation (at an auspicious time, McGraw recognizes). In regulation literature, a historical complement to Stephen Breyer's theoretical Regulation and Its Reform (1982); on its own, exceptional--whatever one thinks of McGraw's policy conclusions.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press