Featured recently in a broadcast on a German public radio station was Georgia Law Professor Laura Phillips-Sawyer, author of American Fair Trade: Proprietary Capitalism, Corporatism, and the ‘New Competition,’ 1890-1940 (Cambridge University Press 2019).
The Deutschland Rundfunk Kultur broadcast by Caspar Dohmen – entitled “Aufstieg und Zerschlagung des Rockefeller-Konzerns,” or “Rise and breakup of the Rockefeller corporation” – profiled John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), an American magnate of the so-called Gilded Age, and, in Dohmen’s words, “the first billionaire.”
Rockefeller, along with Henry M. Flagler and others, founded Standard Oil Co., a corporation that figured in precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court antitrust litigation. This history figures in to Phillips-Sawyer’s book, and she is quoted at length in the broadcast. Some examples:
“The Gilded Age was a time of massive technological change. … There were new big players, but also horizontal mergers where different manufacturers got together and said: Let’s solve the problem of price competition by coordinating and either fixing prices or dividing markets. Partly they were looking for stability in this time of rapid technological change. …”
“If you look at Standard Oil and what Rockefeller and Flagler and his house attorney S.C. Dodd did: A lot of it was creative destruction and smart business strategy! … The oil company also built up a fleet of tankers, first for rail and later for road. … [T]hey made all sorts of innovations that were beneficial to consumers. But then there were moments when they crossed a line and tried to crush their competitors. This is when we need police, surveillance and regulation. You have to enforce the law to keep a market functioning.”
“It took a long time for the case law to change to allow the federal government to intervene in interstate commerce. … A great deal of uncertainty remained about the answer to this question until the New Deal period in the 1930s.”