ABSTRACT

In the first decade of the twentieth century, American railroad companies were frequently in court. Few aspects of the triumphant capitalist system were more despised by the public than the railroads. They were seen to possess unreasonable monopoly powers over mobility, and they charged excessive rates for both passengers and goods. In 1910, following the merger of several eastern railroad companies and a massive increase in haulage rates, the “people’s attorney,” Louis Brandeis (later a Supreme Court justice), took the merged companies before the Interstate Commerce Commission in what became known as the “Eastern Rates case.” Brandeis argued that the companies had increased their rates because they were inefficient. He claimed that if they knew how much things really cost by actually measuring them, using what he called “scientific management,” they could save millions a day. They did not need a rate increase, he argued; they needed science and efficiency. In making his case, Brandeis used several expert witnesses including one Frank Gilbreth who stated the necessity of scientifically assessing a business. He based his testimony on the work of Frederick Taylor. The Eastern rates case was national news, and it was this event that brought the work of Frederick Taylor into the national spotlight. While his work had been well known within the business world for a few years, he had hardly been a household name. It is supremely ironic that a lawyer who was renowned for being on the side of social justice should urge a business policy based on the work of Taylor. Here he was, arguing against the injustice of one form of mobility by appealing to the work of a man who sought to inscribe a hierarchical discipline on the mobilities of the “common people” he was seeking to protect. In the case of the railroads, the freedom of mobility was being constrained by big business, while in the case of the mobile bodies of workers, Brandeis’s expert witnesses were busy constraining freedom in another way. Indeed it was Brandeis who coined the term scientific management to describe the approach that mandated managers to precisely measure the time and resources necessary to complete a particular aspect of a business. In Brandeis’s view, this would ensure that unnecessary costs would not trickle down to the customer. The Eastern Rates case marked the end of excessive railroad rates, but more importantly, it marked the advent of Taylorism.