The Politicization of Antitrust Blog Symposium

Julian Morris —  30 December 2019

The operative text of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 is a scant 100 words:

Section 1:

Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal. Every person who shall make any contract or engage in any combination or conspiracy hereby declared to be illegal shall be deemed guilty of a felony…

Section 2:

Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony…

Its short length and broad implications (“Every contract… in restraint of trade… is declared to be illegal”) didn’t give the courts much to go on in terms of textualism. As for originalism, the legislative history of the Sherman Act is mixed, and no consensus currently exists among experts. In practice, that means enforcement of the antitrust laws in the US has been a product of the evolutionary common law process (and has changed over time due to economic learning). 

Over the last fifty years, academics, judges, and practitioners have generally converged on the consumer welfare standard as the best approach for protecting market competition. Although some early supporters of aggressive enforcement (e.g., Brandeis and, more recently, Pitofsky) advocated for a more political conception of antitrust, that conception of the law has been decisively rejected by the courts as the contours of the law have evolved through judicial decisionmaking. 

In the last few years, however, a movement has reemerged to expand antitrust beyond consumer welfare to include political and social issues, ranging from broadly macroeconomic matters like rising income inequality and declining wages, to sociopolitical concerns like increasing political concentration, environmental degradation, a struggling traditional news industry, and declining localism. 

Although we at ICLE are decidedly in the consumer welfare camp, the contested “original intent” of the antitrust laws and the simple progress of evolving interpretation could conceivably support a broader, more-political interpretation. It is, at the very least, a timely and significant question whether and how political and social issues might be incorporated into antitrust law. Yet much of the discussion of politics and antitrust has been heavy on rhetoric and light on substance; it is dominated by non-expert, ideologically driven opinion. 

In this blog symposium we seek to offer a more substantive and balanced discussion of the issue. To that end, we invited a number of respected economists, legal scholars, and practitioners to offer their perspectives. 

The symposium comprises posts by Steve Cernak, Luigi Zingales and Filippo Maria Lancieri, Geoffrey A. Manne and Alec Stapp, Valentin MirceaRamsi Woodcock, Kristian Stout, and Cento Veljanoski.

Both Steve Cernak and Zingales and Lancieri offer big picture perspectives. Cernak sees the current debate as, “an opportunity to explain the benefits and limits of antitrust enforcement and the competitive process it is meant to protect.” He then urges “regulatory humility” and outlines what this means in the context of antitrust.  

Zingales and Lancieri note that “simply “politicizing” the current antitrust regime would be very dangerous for the economic well-being of nations.” More specifically, they observe that “If used without clear and objective standards, antitrust remedies could easily add an extra layer of uncertainty or could even outright prohibit perfectly legitimate conduct, which would depress competition, investment, and growth.” Nonetheless, they argue that nuanced changes to the application of antitrust law may be justified because, “as markets become more concentrated, incumbent firms become better at distorting the political process in their favor.”

Manne and Stapp question the existence of a causal relationship between market concentration and political power, noting that there is little empirical support for such a claim.  Moreover, they warn that politicizing antitrust will inevitably result in more politicized antitrust enforcement actions to the detriment of consumers and democracy. 

Mircea argues that antitrust enforcement in the EU is already too political and that enforcement has been too focused on “Big Tech” companies. The result has been to chill investment in technology firms in the EU while failing to address legitimate antitrust violations in other sectors. 

Woodcock argues that the excessive focus on “Big Tech” companies as antitrust villains has come in no small part from a concerted effort by “Big Ink” (i.e. media companies), who resent the loss of advertising revenue that has resulted from the emergence of online advertising platforms. Woodcock suggests that the solution to this problem is to ban advertising. (We suspect that this cure would be worse than the disease but will leave substantive criticism to another blog post.)

Stout argues that while consumers may have legitimate grievances with Big Tech companies, these grievances do not justify widening the scope of antitrust, noting that “Concerns about privacy, hate speech, and, more broadly, the integrity of the democratic process are critical issues to wrestle with. But these aren’t antitrust problems.”

Finally, Veljanovski highlights potential problems with per se rules against cartels, noting that in some cases (most notably regulation of common pool resources such as fisheries), long-run consumer welfare may be improved by permitting certain kinds of cartel. However, he notes that in the case of polluting firms, a cartel that raises prices and lowers output is not likely to be the most efficient way to reduce the harms associated with pollution. This is of relevance given the DOJ’s case against certain automobile manufacturers, which are accused of colluding with California to set emission standards that are stricter than required under federal law.

It is tempting to conclude that U.S. antitrust law is not fundamentally broken, so does not require a major fix. Indeed, if any fix is needed, it is that the CWS should be more widely applied both in the U.S. and internationally.