A quarter century after Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman infamously led his armies of the Tennessee and Georgia rampaging through the South, snapping the spine of the Confederacy, his brother ushered into law legislation aimed at ensuring business behemoths could not decimate their rivals with similar abandon. History has proved the latter action more enduring.
Born the eighth of 11 children, John Sherman practiced law, then entered politics, winning at age 32 a seat in the U.S. House, where his keen intellect rapidly distinguished him. By the time his older brother was leading Union troops in the calamitous First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Sherman the younger was serving in the U.S. Senate as the junior from Ohio.
Known for his financial acumen and fiscal conservatism, the senator led the post-Civil War reconfiguration of America’s monetary system and restoration of the nation’s credit with currency backed by gold. Sherman acutely understood and articulated as few of his peers could the necessity of economic stability for the nation’s recovery from war and its future viability.
This led to a series of measures and initiatives culminating in 1890 with the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the simple force of which abides. Passed overwhelmingly in both chambers, with both political parties wary of the increasing stranglehold of monopolies, Sherman’s signature legislation was relatively untapped for the following decade. Then came President Theodore Roosevelt famously busting trusts, including the mighty Standard Oil.
Sherman’s wisdom on the subject still shines. Far from anti-business, as critics myopically asserted, the Sherman Act is decidedly pro-business and, specifically, pro-competition. Under Sherman, any combination, trust or conspiracy “in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.”
Setting rules to assure a level playing field and fair competition helped kindle American ingenuity as the young country rose to become the world’s greatest economic power. Monopolies suffocate innovation and the vibrancy it breeds.
Guarding against their damaging impact is important work and vital now as the United States struggles to retain its global economic status. This adds significance to decisions being contemplated by a new presidential administration and those Joe Biden will appoint to high-ranking office, such as attorney general.
Merrick Garland is the president’s choice for that position. Once confirmed, Garland will be tasked with naming an assistant attorney general whose duties will include oversight of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.
For this office, a clear standout has emerged in Jonathan Kanter. Over the course of the past two decades, Kanter has risen to become, arguably, America’s leading antitrust lawyer.
The founder of a Washington, D.C., law firm under his name, Kanter brings a range of expertise on antitrust cutting across the spectrum, crafting the thinking driving federal actions against tech giants, skillfully and passionately combating anti-competitive mergers and forming winning legal theories in one case after another.
A second agency, the Federal Trade Commission, forms another essential bulwark against the corrosive force of monopolies. Biden has chosen Rohit Chopra from that panel to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
That creates an opening on the Trade Commission. For that slot, the right choice is brilliant young antitrust scholar Lina Khan, author of a Yale Law School paper titled “The Amazon Antitrust Paradox,” described by The New York Times as having “reframed decades of monopoly law.”
Principally, Khan, whose ideas already are widely quoted, contends that companies gaining too much power disrupt not only markets but American life, molding regulations, schools and even neighborhoods to suit their wants.
That much is vividly evident today, when a half-dozen companies, all of them digital, compose a fourth of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, making for a consolidation of wealth and power not imagined even by industrialists of yore.
Whom President Biden and his appointees select for assistant attorney general and a seat on the Federal Trade Commission indeed is about more than antitrust but about the shape of America for a generation to come.
Such responsibility demands the kind of stewardship Kanter and Khan already have demonstrated they would provide. We are sure the author of the Sherman Antitrust Act would concur.