Harvard historian Jill Lepore (whose most recent book was co-authored with Brandeis history chair Jane Kamensky) has a great piece in this week’s New Yorker about Louis Brandeis and “scientific management.” As Lepore tells it, scientific management was a peculiar brand of charlatanism peddled by the first generation of business consultants. Supposedly a new way of increasing efficiency, and thereby profit, scientific management placed unreasonable demands on workers and disregarded their humanity and autonomy. Louis Brandeis became a strong supporter of the practice, because he naively felt that increased efficiency would leave workers more time for political activity. The unions, however, felt differently, and Brandeis briefly found himself at odds with workers, for perhaps the only time during his time as The People’s Attorney. From the article:

Modern-day management consulting may be precisely nine-tenths shtick and one-tenth Excel, but that doesn’t explain the appeal of scientific management for Louis Brandeis, who wasn’t easily duped…The man who wrote “The Curse of Bigness” earnestly believed—and plainly, to some degree, he was right—that scientific management would improve the lot of the little guy by raising wages, reducing the cost of goods, and elevating the standard of living. “Of all the social and economic movements with which I have been connected,” Brandeis wrote, “none seems to me to be equal to this in its importance and hopefulness.” Scientific management would bring justice to an unjust world. “Efficiency is the hope of democracy,” he avowed.

It’s rare around here to read a mildly less-than-glowing account of Brandeis’s worker advocacy, so Lepore’s article is worth a read not just because it’s funny and fascinating, but also because it slightly counters the spotless hagiography we tend to receive. Of course, Brandeis’s embrace of this particular questionable scheme hardly diminishes his vast body of accomplishment, but it’s nice to see his human side, and to know that the man with the highest GPA in the history of Harvard Law School was capable of errors in judgment.

Not So Fast: Scientific Management started as a way to work. How did it become a way of life?

Scientific management started as a way to work. How did it become a way of life?

One comment on “New Yorker article reveals the history of Louis Brandeis and consulting”

  1. Art Says:

    Very interesting to know a Justice so ascribed with “liberal” [used here in a non-US political scene manner] beliefs had some firm capitalism, business-side principles. Good to know, even. And yet at the university so named after this individual, there was contention when talk of a business major arose…