Jeffrey Rosen’s Biography of Louis D. Brandeis

18Oct16

I have been swamped at work and as a result gotten behind in my Brandeis duties. So here, almost five months late, is my write-up of Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet by law professor and journalist Jeffrey Rosen, which is part of Yale Press’s series called Jewish Lives. I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, but I suspect that Rosen’s book is different from them in that this book is not so much a biography as it is, as he puts it, “a passionate case of why Brandeis matters today.” And passionate it is; you can feel Rosen’s admiration for Brandeis emanating off of nearly every page.

Rosen doesn’t completely eschew biography as he gives a good summary of Brandeis’s life, peppered with new personal details gleaned from interviews with Brandeis’s grandchildren. But the bulk of the book is devoted to Brandeis’s various causes: regulated competition, industrial democracy, scientific management, unions, regularity of employment, savings bank life insurance, the Brandeis Brief, the Ballinger-Pinchot affair, size and efficiency, interlocking directorates, price fixing, commercial banking vs. investment banking, free speech, privacy, federalism, and Zionism. (I’m forgetting a few but you get the idea.)

The ongoing theme is about how Brandeis was “Jefferson’s philosophical successor.” Rosen posits a Jefferson vs. Hamilton model of economics and shows how reflects Brandeis’s philosophy and his causes: small vs. large, agricultural vs. industrial, liberty vs. efficiency, etc. He makes a particularly convincing argument as to how Jefferson (and Alfred Zimmern) influenced Brandies’s decision to become a Zionist.

In the last chapter, Rosen plays the dangerous game, and favorite conference topic, of predicting how Brandeis would react to current issues if he were alive today: such as privacy and the cloud, constant surveillance, Citizen’s United and the right to be forgotten. It is, of course, impossible to say how accurate Rosen’s guesses are, but they make for provocative reading.

In the course of preparing for this post, I found a video on YouTube of a conversation about Brandeis between Rosen, Mel Urofsky and Philippa Strum, which was recorded on June 1, the 100th anniversary of the Senate’s confirmation of Brandeis’s Supreme Court nomination. Rosen’s enthusiasm for the topic is palpable as it is for sharing the stage with Urofsky and Strum, although that doesn’t stop him from comically cutting off Urofsky a couple times. There is also a couple interesting debates over just how much Brandeis was influenced by Jefferson and just why Brandeis became a Zionist.

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