Abbott on the Apple e-books case: Apple v. United States and antitrust error cost analysis

Alden Abbott —  15 February 2016

As Judge (and Professor) Frank Easterbrook famously explained over three decades ago (in his seminal article The Limits of Antitrust), antitrust is an inherently limited body of law. In crafting and enforcing liability rules to combat market power and encourage competition, courts and regulators may err in two directions: they may wrongly forbid output-enhancing behavior or wrongly fail to condemn output-reducing conduct. The social losses from false convictions and false acquittals, taken together, comprise antitrust’s “error costs.” While it may be possible to reduce error costs by making liability rules more nuanced, added complexity raises the “decision costs” incurred by business planners (ex ante) and adjudicators (ex post). In light of all these costs, Easterbrook advocated an approach that would optimize antitrust’s effectiveness: interpret and enforce the antitrust laws so as to minimize the sum of error and decision costs.

Judge Easterbrook’s approach is consistent with the widely accepted proposition that antitrust enforcement should be viewed as an exercise in consumer welfare maximization. In order to maximize welfare, enforcers must have an understanding of – and seek to maximize the difference between – the aggregate costs and benefits that are likely to flow from their policies.  Specifically, antitrust enforcers first should ensure that the rules they propagate create net welfare benefits. Next, they should (to the extent possible) seek to calibrate those rules so as to maximize net welfare. This is achieved by employing an error cost (decision theoretic) framework, which seeks to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives, false negatives, antitrust administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties (the latter may also be viewed as a subset of false positives).

Perhaps the most glaring flaw of the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in United States v. Apple Inc., is the failure to pay heed to error costs and the limits of antitrust as an administrative system.

In condemning Apple’s vertical contracts as illegal per se, because they allegedly were used to facilitate a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among publishers, the Second Circuit ignored the vast literature on the efficiencies associated with vertical restraints. (They also failed to heed Supreme Court precedent, see here). Moreover, the vertical restraints employed by Apple in this case, such as most-favored nation (MFN) clauses, clearly had substantial efficiency potential – they were particularly well-suited to facilitate Apple’s competition with Amazon’s established e-book platform and thereby enhance competition in the emerging e-book market. (This theme is explained and developed here). Accordingly, the Second Circuit’s failure to examine the restraints in detail under the antitrust rule of reason created a strong potential for wrongly condemning procompetitive behavior (false positives). In contrast, the likelihood of wrongly failing to condemn anticompetitive practices (false negatives) under a rule of reason assessment in this case (involving a substantial record, an emerging dynamic market, and the use of typically efficient vertical contracts by a new entrant) would have been comparatively small. Furthermore, the Second Circuit’s per se condemnation of vertical restraints in Apple creates substantial disincentive costs, by discouraging other businesses from developing innovative distribution models employing vertical restraints in emerging markets.

In sum, the Second Circuit’s approach is plainly at odds with a welfare-enhancing, decision theoretic approach to antitrust. It also runs counter to the general thrust of the Supreme Court’s recent antitrust jurisprudence, which implicitly has adopted an error cost framework (see the article by Thom Lambert and me, here) with a focus on false positives. As the late Justice Scalia pithily explained, “[m]istaken inferences and the resulting false condemnations are ‘especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.’” Verizon v. Trinko (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.). It would be fitting tribute to the great Justice for the Supreme Court to heed this teaching and grant certiorari in the Apple case.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

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