Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr. (1895-1971), was an educator, a diplomat, a government official, and a provocative interpreter of the United States corporate economy.
Adolf Berle was born in Boston, Mass., on Jan. 27, 1895. He earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard College in 1913 and his master's in 1914. He then entered Harvard Law School, from which he received his degree in 1916, at the age of 21.
After a year of law practice in Boston, followed by a year with the United States commission to negotiate the peace with Germany, Berle moved to New York City in 1919 to become a member of the law firm of Berle, Berle and Brunner, where he remained, taking frequent leaves for public and diplomatic service. He was professor of corporation law on the faculty of Columbia Law School from 1927 until he retired as professor emeritus in 1964. He was a member of the board of directors of such public, civic, and educational institutions as SuCrest and the Twentieth Century Fund of New York City, and École de l'Europe Libre, France. He was also chamberlain of New York City during 1934-1938.
In 1933 he began a long and distinguished career of high-level government assignments. He was a member of the original "brain trust" in the early years of President Franklin Roosevelt's first administration. He served as special counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (1933-1938), assistant secretary of state (1938-1944), United States ambassador to Brazil (1945-1946), chairman of the Task Force on Latin America (1961), and consultant to the secretary of state (1961-1962). At intervals throughout this period he also served as United States delegate to the Inter-American Conference for Maintenance of Peace (Buenos Aires, 1936-1937); and two Pan American conferences (Lima, Peru, 1938; Havana, Cuba, 1940). He was president of the International Conference on Civil Aviation and chairman of the American delegation (Chicago, 1944). Berle died in New York City on Feb. 17, 1971.
Berle's scholarly works include numerous law texts, legal, social, and economic commentaries, and treatises on the United States corporate economy. By far the best-known and most frequently cited of these works are The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932, coauthored with Gardiner Means), The 20th Century Capitalist Revolution (1954), and Power without Property (1959).
In The Modern Corporation, Berle and Means presented an analysis of the structure of the American economy, showing that the means of production were highly concentrated in the hands of the largest 200 corporations, that this concentration was increasing, and that within the large corporations which so dominated the economy there was a clear divorcement of ownership from control. Since the American private-property legal system had been based on the assumption that those who owned property possessed the rights and power to use it for their own benefit, the Berle and Means thesis called into serious question the operability of the legal system on which the private-enterprise economy had been built.
In the two later volumes Berle advanced the companion thesis that management of large corporate enterprise, in addition to having become liberated from the control of corporate owners (stockholders), had acquired sufficient power to have become liberated from the market forces of competition as well. He concluded, therefore, that much of the economic theory pertaining to the functioning of the marketplace, which served as a rationale for the free-enterprise market economy, had been rendered obsolete by the accumulation of immense power in the hands of corporate management. This provocative thesis generated much debate among economists and legal scholars, a debate that still continues.
References to Berle's work are found in numerous discussions on the American economy. The American Economic System: An Anthology of Writings concerning the American Economy, compiled by Massimo Salvadori (1963), contains a useful section on Berle's analysis of the modern corporation. See also George A. Steiner, Government's Role in Economic Life (1957), and Peter d'A. Jones, America's Wealth (1963).
Schwarz, Jordan A., Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the vision of an American era, New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1987.