Laura Phillips Sawyer - Faculty & Research - Harvard Business School
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Laura Phillips Sawyer

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Business, Government and the International Economy

Laura Phillips Sawyer is an assistant professor in the Business, Government, and International Economy Unit, where she teaches the course of the same name in the MBA required curriculum. Previously, she held the Harvard-Newcomen Fellowship in Business History at HBS.

Professor Sawyer studies the history of capitalism in the United States, focusing on post-Civil War U.S. political economy. She explains how changes in legal theory, economic thought, and business methods influenced the emergence of various types of regulation—both seen and unseen—and shaped trends in American business organization and consumer culture. Her work has been published in the Journal for the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and Business and Economic History; her book, American Fair Trade: Proprietary Capitalism, Corporatism, and the 'New Competition,' 1890-1940, is under contract with Cambridge University Press.

Professor Sawyer received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia and subsequently held a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. While at Brown, she taught courses in both history and political science.
Books
  1. American Fair Trade: Proprietary Capitalism, Corporatism, and the 'New Competition,' 1890-1940

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    American Fair Trade explores the contested political and legal meanings of the term fair trade from the late nineteenth century through the New Deal era. This history of American capitalism argues that business associations partnered with regulators to create codes of fair competition that reshaped both public and private regulatory power.

    Rather than viewing the history of American capitalism as the unassailable ascent of large-scale corporations and free competition, American Fair Trade argues that trade associations of independent proprietors lobbied and litigated to reshape competition policy to their benefit. At the turn of the twentieth century, this widespread fair trade movement borrowed from progressive law and economics, demonstrating a persistent concern with market fairness – not only fair prices for consumers but also fair competition among businesses. Proponents of fair trade collaborated with regulators to create codes of fair competition and influenced the administrative state’s public-private approach to market regulation. New Deal partnerships in planning borrowed from those efforts to manage competitive markets, yet ultimately discredited the fair trade model by mandating economy-wide trade rules that sharply reduced competition. Laura Phillips Sawyer analyses how these efforts to reconcile the American tradition of a well-regulated society with the legacy of Gilded Age laissez-faire capitalism produced the modern American regulatory state.

    Keywords: Economic Systems; Competition; Policy; Fairness; History; Governing Rules, Regulations, and Reforms; United States;

    Citation:

    Phillips Sawyer, Laura. American Fair Trade: Proprietary Capitalism, Corporatism, and the 'New Competition,' 1890-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.  View Details
Journal Articles
  1. California Fair Trade: Antitrust and the Politics of 'Fairness' in U.S. Competition Policy

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    In the decades before World War II, U.S. antitrust law was anything but settled. Considerable pressure for antitrust revision came from the states. A perhaps unlikely leader, Edna Gleason, organized California's retail pharmacists and coordinated trade networks to monitor and enforce Resale Price Maintenance (RPM) contracts, a system of price-fixing, then known as “fair trade.” Progressive jurists, including Louis Brandeis and institutional economist E.R.A. Seligman, supported RPM as a protection to independent proprietors. The breakdown of legal and economic consensus regarding what constituted “unfair competition” allowed businesspeople to act as intermediaries between heterodox economic thought and contested antitrust law, ultimately tailoring federal policy to accommodate state regulations.

    Keywords: Competition; Fairness; Laws and Statutes; Policy; United States;

    Citation:

    Phillips Sawyer, Laura. "California Fair Trade: Antitrust and the Politics of 'Fairness' in U.S. Competition Policy." Business History Review 90, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 31–56.  View Details
  2. Contested Meanings of Freedom: Workingmen's Wages, the Company Store System and the Godcharles v. Wigeman Decision

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    In 1886, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited employers from paying wages in company store scrip and mandated monthly wage payments. The court held that the legislature could not prescribe mandatory wage contracts for legally competent workingmen. The decision quashed over two decades of efforts to end the "truck system." Although legislators had agreed that wage payments redeemable only in company store goods appeared antithetical to the free labor wage system, two obstacles complicated legislative action. Any law meant to enhance laborers' rights could neither favor one class over another nor infringe any workingman's ability to make voluntary contracts. These distinctions, however, were not as rigid and laissez faire-oriented as depicted by conventional history. Labor reformers argued that principles of equity must supplement these categories of class legislation and contract freedom. This essay explores how legal doctrine helped both sides of the anti-truck debate articulate the contested meanings of liberty. Ultimately, the Godcharles ruling enshrined the specialness of workingmen's labor contracts and rejected the use of equity principles to justify contract regulations, but the controversy also informed future labor strategies, especially the turn to state police powers as the rubric under which workers' safety, morals, and health could be protected.

    Keywords: Wages; Rights; Fairness; Lawsuits and Litigation; Laws and Statutes; Pennsylvania;

    Citation:

    Phillips Sawyer, Laura. "Contested Meanings of Freedom: Workingmen's Wages, the Company Store System and the Godcharles v. Wigeman Decision." Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 12, no. 3 (July 2013): 285–319.  View Details
Book Chapters
  1. Between Economic Planning and Market Competition: U.S. Law and Economics in the 1920s

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    The impact of institutional economics in shaping the American regulatory tradition has largely been dismissed as an incoherent attack on the neoclassical economic paradigm. This essay briefly reconstructs the interwar institutionalist movement, exploring the continuities among heterodox thinkers and the implications for public and private institution building. It seeks to reorient the history of U.S. political economy towards a deeper understanding of the public-private regulatory tradition that developed in the 1920s through the influence of the institutionalists and other progressive liberals. It emphasizes institutionalists acting within both public administrative agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce, as well as private research organizations that partnered with business groups and regulatory bodies.

    Keywords: Economics; History; Governing Rules, Regulations, and Reforms; Business and Government Relations; United States;

    Citation:

    Phillips Sawyer, Laura. "Between Economic Planning and Market Competition: U.S. Law and Economics in the 1920s." In New Perspectives on the History of Political Economy, edited by Robert Fredona and Sophus A. Reinert. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.  View Details
  2. Trade Associations, State Building, and the Sherman Act: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1912–25

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    From its founding in 1912 through the interwar years, the Chamber’s history shows a persistent preoccupation with progressive economics and policy making. Rather than flouting the new ideas of institutional economics, which favored federal regulators overseeing data collection and dissemination among businesses so as to stabilize prices and facilitate interfirm cooperation instead of so-called cutthroat competition, many members of the Chamber embraced these progressive prescriptions for public-private regulation. This essay explains how a subset of USCC members fostered industry-wide “codes of fair competition” by participating in experimental studies like those undertaken at the Harvard Bureau of Business Research and by supporting new collaborative efforts with government agencies, including the Department of Commerce and the Federal Trade Commission. Both the private and public initiatives at industry rationalization challenged existing ideas of antitrust law, which had favored either corporate consolidation or free market competition. The codes, instead, popularized a third way, an alternative vision for American capitalism that partnered private trade associations with government agencies. The codes of fair competition discussed at the Chamber and other trade association meetings, supported by academic literature on systematized trade practices and promulgated by FTC trade practice conferences through the 1920s, eventually became a lynchpin in the New Deal competition policy. Ultimately, a new understanding of fair competition redefined American government by pushing administrative agencies into their modern role as intermediaries in determining the lawful parameters of trade practices.

    Keywords: Competition; Fairness; Supply and Industry; Policy; Business and Government Relations; United States;

    Citation:

    Phillips Sawyer, Laura. "Trade Associations, State Building, and the Sherman Act: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1912–25." Chap. 1 in Capital Gains: Business and Politics in Twentieth-Century America, edited by Richard R. John and Kim Phillips-Fein, 25–42. Hagley Perspectives on Business and Culture. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  View Details
Working Papers
  1. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Modern Administrative State, 1912–1925: Trade Associations, Codes of Fair Competition, and State Building

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    From its founding in 1912 through the interwar years, the Chamber's history shows a persistent preoccupation with progressive economics and policy-making. Rather than flouting the new ideas of institutional economics, which favored federal regulators overseeing data collection and dissemination among businesses so as to stabilize prices and facilitate interfirm cooperation instead of so-called cutthroat competition, many members of the Chamber embraced these progressive prescriptions for public-private regulation. This essay explains how a subset of USCC members fostered industry-wide "codes of fair competition" by participating in experimental studies like those undertaken at the Harvard Bureau of Business Research and by supporting new collaborative efforts with government agencies, including the Department of Commerce and the Federal Trade Commission. Both the private and public initiatives at industry rationalization challenged existing ideas of antitrust law, which had favored either corporate consolidation or free market competition. The codes, instead, popularized a third way, an alternative vision for American capitalism that partnered private trade associations with government agencies. The codes of fair competition discussed at the Chamber and other trade association meetings, supported by academic literature on systematized trade practices and promulgated by FTC trade practice conferences through the 1920s, eventually became a lynchpin in New Deal competition policy. Ultimately, a new understanding of fair competition redefined American government by pushing administrative agencies into their modern role as intermediaries in determining the lawful parameters of trade practices.

    Keywords: Organizations; Trade; Business and Government Relations; Competition; United States;

  2. The U.S. Experiment with Fair Trade Laws: State Police Powers, Federal Antitrust, and the Politics of 'Fairness,' 1890-1938

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    Prior to the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, considerable pressure for antitrust revision came from trade associations of independent proprietors. A perhaps unlikely leader, Edna Gleason, organized California's retail pharmacists and coordinated trade networks to monitor and enforce Resale Price Maintenance (RPM) contracts, a system of price-fixing, then known as "fair trade." Progressive jurists, including Louis Brandeis, and institutional economist E.R.A. Seligman supported RPM as a legitimate tactic to protect small businesspeople and enhance non-price competition. The breakdown of legal and economic consensus regarding what constituted "unfair competition" allowed businesspeople to act as intermediaries between heterodox economic thought and contested antitrust law, ultimately tailoring federal policy to accommodate state regulations.

    Keywords: Competition; Fairness; Laws and Statutes; Supply and Industry; Business and Government Relations;

    Citation:

    Phillips Sawyer, Laura. "The U.S. Experiment with Fair Trade Laws: State Police Powers, Federal Antitrust, and the Politics of 'Fairness,' 1890-1938." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 16-060, November 2015.  View Details
Cases and Teaching Materials
Presentations
  1. Private Power, Public Values: Regulating 'Social Infrastructure' in a Changing Economy

    K. Sabeel Rahman and Laura Phillips Sawyer (comment)

    Citation:

    Rahman, K. Sabeel, and Laura Phillips Sawyer (comment). "Private Power, Public Values: Regulating 'Social Infrastructure' in a Changing Economy." Paper presented at the Law & Government Research Roundtable: Revisiting the Public Utility, Vanderbilt Law School, Nashville, TN, February 24, 2017.  View Details
  2. Institutional Economics and Managed Competition: U.S. Antitrust, Economics and Law in the Progressive Era, 1911-1929

    Laura Phillips Sawyer

    Citation:

    Phillips Sawyer, Laura. "Institutional Economics and Managed Competition: U.S. Antitrust, Economics and Law in the Progressive Era, 1911-1929." Paper presented at the S-USIH Annual Conference, Society for U.S. Intellectual History, Washington, DC, October 15–18, 2015.  View Details
Other Publications and Materials