Tag Archives: Lewis Powell

That Infamous Memo

For years, I’ve seen references to the memorandum written by former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, well before he joined the court, to the Education Committee of the national Chamber of Commerce. I was always curious about its contents, (but obviously not curious enough to google or otherwise research it).

Fortunately, Vernon Turner reproduced it in his new book, Why Angels Weep: America and Donald Trump.

It is important to recognize that this memo was written in 1971–when the country was still in the chaos of the tumultuous events we lump together as “the Sixties.” Powell was hardly the only privileged white guy who experienced the events of that era as a wholesale assault on everything America stood for. Nor was he entirely wrong: there were certainly people in the streets at that time who would have cheerfully brought the whole system down. They weren’t into nuance or careful distinctions.

That said, it is fascinating to see the panic in Powell’s analysis and the obvious long-term effects of his recommendations.

Powell is less concerned with the “sources” of what he perceives as a broad scale attack on (an undefined) “free enterprise” than with the fact that elements of society he considers “respectable” seem to agree with many of the criticisms leveled by the “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries.”  He is especially critical of “the campuses”–and seems particularly aggrieved  that institutions receiving tax dollars and support from the business community are harboring people critical of capitalism.

Pardon the aside, but I’m really getting tired of this particular trope. For one thing, it isn’t accurate. It may be true  that faculty in elite institutions tend to be liberal, but most colleges in the U.S. are not Yale, Stanford, Harvard or the University of Chicago. This country has 629 public universities, 1,845 private four-year institutions (a significant number of which are affiliated with conservative religious denominations), and 1070 public and 596 private two-year colleges. They defy uniformity in everything from the quality of instruction to the political orientation of their faculties.

Of course, when respect for science and evidence are enough to make people “liberals,” I guess most educated people must plead guilty…

What really struck me about Powell’s memo, however, wasn’t his somewhat paranoid tone. It was this passage:

“The day is long past when the chief executive officer of a major corporation discharges his responsibility by maintaining a satisfactory growth of profits, with due regard to the corporation’s public and social responsibilities.

Think about that last sentence. Powell’s memo was written at a time when it was accepted that corporations and other business enterprises had “public and social responsibilities.”

Back in “the day,” I served on a number of civic boards with local businesspeople (okay, local businessmen) who considered civic and social participation an integral part of their jobs–who believed that making their communities better places to live was an important aspect of their business responsibility–whether it added anything to the bottom line or not.

To say things have changed would be an understatement.

Later in the memo, Powell laments that “few elements of American society have as little influence on government as the American businessman, the corporation or even the millions of stockholders.” Today, this elicits an out-loud laugh (it probably wasn’t very accurate in 1971, either).

In the years since Powell authored his memo, the world has changed dramatically–and a good deal of that change was triggered by his memo. Today–in the wake of Supreme Court cases (in some of which Powell participated) that laid the groundwork for Citizens United– corporations pretty much dictate government policy. It is workers and consumers who are currently unrepresented in the halls of Congress.

The ancient Greeks were right to seek out the “mean between extremes.” Business interests certainly deserve a place a the policy table. So does labor. So do consumers. When no element of the economic universe has the power to dictate public policy to the detriment of the others–when there is a genuine balance of power and a recognition of the legitimacy of the claims of all elements of our economic system–then, and only then, will markets work.

Lewis Powell was a (somewhat blinkered) product of his time. That time is long gone.