As it has before in its history, liberalism again finds itself at an existential crossroads, with liberally oriented reformers generally falling into two camps: those who seek to subordinate markets to some higher vision of the common good and those for whom the market itself is the common good. The former seek to rein in, temper, order, and discipline unfettered markets, while the latter strive to build on the foundations of classical liberalism to perfect market logic, rather than to subvert it.
This conflict of visions has deep ramifications for today’s economic policy. In his classic text “The Antitrust Paradox,” Judge Robert Bork deemed antitrust law a “subcategory of ideology” that “connects with the central political and social concerns of our time.” Among these concerns, he focused specifically on the eternal tension between the ideals of “equality” and “freedom.” In recent years, that tension has been exemplified in competition-policy debates by two schools of thought: the neo-Brandeisians, whose jurisprudential philosophy draws from the progressive U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and another group represented by the Chicago School and other defenders of the consumer-welfare standard.
But this schism resembles similar divides that have played out countless times over the history of liberalism, albeit under different names and banners. Looking back on the past century and a half of economic and philosophical thought can help us to make sense of these fundamentally opposed visions for the future of both liberalism and antitrust. This history can also help us to understand how these ideologies have sometimes failed to live up to their ambitions or crumbled under the weight of their own contradictions.
In this final piece in the political philosophy series, I explain the genesis, normative underpinnings, and likely outcome of the current “battle for the soul of antitrust.” The broader point that I have tried to make throughout this series is that this confrontation hinges on ethical and deontological considerations, as much as it does on “hard” consequentialist arguments. Put differently, how we decide to resolve foundational and putatively “technical” questions regarding the goals, standards, and enforcement of antitrust law ultimately cannot help but reflect our underlying views about the values and ideals that should guide a liberal society. In this vein, I argue that there are compelling non-utilitarian reasons to prefer a polity with an in-built bias for negative freedom and that is guided by a narrow economic-efficiency criterion, rather than the apparently ascendant alternatives.
The Birth of Neoliberalism
The clearest articulation of the philosophical schism between the two visions of liberalism that we see today came with the 1937 publication of “The Good Society” by American author and journalist Walter Lippmann. Lippman—who, like Brandeis, came out of the American Progressive Movement and had been an adviser to progressive U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—sparked the birth of “neoliberalism” as a separate strand of liberal political philosophical thought. The book invited readers to critically reexamine and, where appropriate, update the tenets of classical liberalism with a view toward “stabilizing and consolidating the course of an intellectual tradition that was otherwise bound to tumble straight into oblivion” (see here).
This was the objective of the “neoliberal collective,” a loose affiliation of liberally oriented thinkers who convened for the first time at the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in 1938 to discuss Lippmann’s seminal book, and from 1947 onwards more formally under the auspices of the Mont Pelerin Society.
Neoliberals grappled with questions that went to the very heart of liberalism, such as how to adapt traditional small-scale human societies to the exigencies of ever-widening markets and economic progress; the causes and consequences of industrial concentration; the appropriate role and boundaries of state intervention; the ability of markets to address the “social question”; the interplay between freedom and coercion; and the tension between the individual and the collective. Like Lippmann, the neoliberals were convinced that the failure to reckon with such fundamental issues would result in the inevitable displacement of liberalism by some form of “authoritarian collectivism,” which they believed provided emotionally appealing (but ultimately illusory) solutions to the full range of liberal problems.
It quickly became apparent, however, that there existed two main currents of neoliberalism.
The first, which I will call “left neoliberalism,” was a relatively conciliatory version that sought to strike a “mostly liberal” balance with socialism and collectivism. It postulated that markets are embedded in a broader social and political context that may include a strong and activist state, aggressive antitrust policy, robust social rights, and an emphasis on positive freedom. In this respect, their views resembled those of the Progressive Movement of Wilson and Brandeis, which was carried on into the mid-20th century in the United States by such figures as President Franklin Roosevelt, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The “left neoliberals,” however, were primarily European, and included the likes of Wilhelm Röpke, Walter Eucken, Franz Bohm, Alexander Rüstow, Luigi Einaudi, Louis Rougier, Louis Marlio, and Jacques Rueff (and, arguably, Lippmann himself).
Adherents to the other strand, “right neoliberalism,” were more conservative and less willing to compromise. They championed a strong but minimal state tasked with (and limited by) facilitating efficient markets, posited a lean antitrust policy, and emphasized negative liberty. Thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Lionel Robbins, James Buchanan and, arguably, the more libertarian Ludwig von Mises and Bruno Leoni would fall into this group.
The Price Mechanism and the State
The two groups of neoliberals shared several basic postulates.
First and foremost, they agreed that any revision of Adam Smith’’s “invisible hand” had to respect the integrity of the price mechanism (what Wilhelm Röpke referred to as the “sacrosanct core of liberalism”). The argument rested on utilitarian, but also political and ethical grounds. As Friedrich Hayek argued in “The Road to Serfdom,” the substitution of the free market for a centrally planned economy would lead to the loss of economic freedom, and eventually all other freedoms, as well. This meant that neoliberals were, on principle, harsh critics of any type of state intervention that distorted the formation of prices through the forces of supply and demand.
At the same time, however, neither strand of neoliberalism professed a doctrine of statelessness. To the contrary, the state may, in hindsight, be neoliberalism’s greatest conquest. The question at hand is what kind of state is optimal.
For the left neoliberals, a strong state was needed to resist capture by interest groups. It also had to exercise good political leadership and discretion in juggling goals and values (markets, after all, had to be “embedded” in the social order). These views were underpinned by a relatively sanguine set of expectations the left neoliberals had of the state’s willingness and capacity to protect the general interest, as well as their shared belief that the core institutions of liberalism (including self-regulating markets) were prone to degeneration and in need of constant public oversight. The state, not the private sector, was the ultimate ordering power of the economy. As Alexander Rüstow said:
I am, indeed, of the opinion that it is not the economy, but the state which determines our fate.
The right neoliberal position was more ambivalent, due to its heightened skepticism toward state power. The bigger threat to freedom was not unfettered private power, but public power. As Milton Friedman put it in “Capitalism and Freedom”:
Government is necessary to preserve our freedom […] yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. […] How can we benefit from the promise of government while avoiding the threat to freedom?
The answer was a revamped Smithian nightwatchman that acted more as an umpire determining “the rules of the game” and overseeing free interactions between individuals than as a helmsman tasked with channeling society toward any particular variety of teleological goals. Like the left neoliberal position, this one, too, rests on a set of theoretical underpinnings.
One is that public actors are not any less self-interested than private ones, with the corollary that any extension or deepening of the powers of the state must be well-justified. The idea relied heavily on the public choice theory developed by James M. Buchanan, a member of Mont Pelerin Society and its president from 1984 to 1986. Thus, left and right neoliberals advanced almost completely opposite responses to the problem of capture. While left neoliberals believed in strengthening the state relative to private enterprise, the right’s critique led them to want precisely to limit state power and reshape institutional incentives.
This is not surprising, as right neoliberals were also more optimistic about the potential of markets and deontologically more preoccupied with negative freedom, a combination that added another layer of suspicion to any putatively progressive measures that involved wealth redistribution or meticulous administration of the market by the state.
Economic Concentration and Competition
Another important difference lay in the two sides’ views on economic concentration and competition. Some left neoliberals, particularly in Europe, internalized much of the Marxist and fascist critiques of capitalism, including the belief that markets naturally tended toward economic concentration. They argued, however, that this process could be reversed or prevented with robust antitrust and de-concentration measures. While essentially conceding Marxian arguments about the intrinsic tendency of competition to degenerate into monopoly—thereby fostering inequality and “proletarizing” the masses—they denied the ultimate implications upon which Marx had insisted—i.e., the inevitable “cannibalization” of capitalism through its inherent contradictions.
Right neoliberals, by contrast, insisted that, where economic concentration was not fleeting, it was generally the result of state action, not state inaction. As Mises argued, cartels were a consequence of protectionism and the artificial partitioning of markets through, e.g., tariffs. Similarly, monopolies formed and persisted because of “anti-liberal policies of governments that [created] the conditions favorable” to them. This implied that antitrust had a secondary position in securing competitive markets.
Each strand’s reasoning as to why competition was worthy of protection also differed. For the right neoliberals, who saw the legitimate goals and boundaries of public policy through the lenses of economic efficiency and negative freedom, the case for competition was principally a utilitarian one. As Hayek wrote in “Individualism and Economic Order,” state-backed institutions and laws (including antitrust laws) that “made competition work” (by which he meant, made competition work effectively) were one of the ways in which right neoliberals improved on the classical liberal position.
Left neoliberals added political, social, and ethical layers to this argument. Politically, they shared the standard Marxian view that concentrated markets facilitated the capture of the state by powerful private interests. Marxists had, e.g., always asserted that Nazism was the product of “monopoly capitalism” and that the Nazis themselves were the tools of big business (the idea of “state monopoly capitalism” stems from Lenin). Left neoliberals largely agreed with this view. They also counseled that a centralized industry was more readily prone to takeover by an authoritarian state. In addition, they rejected “bigness” because they considered it an unnatural perversion of human nature (though such critiques surprisingly did not seem to translate to the state). As Wilhelm Röpke notes in “A Humane Economy”:
Nothing is more detrimental to a sound general order appropriate to human nature than two things: mass and concentration.
“Bigness,” Roepke thought, had come about as a result of one particularly harmful but pervasive trend of modernity: “economism,” a frequent target of left neoliberals that refers to a fixation with indicators of economic performance at the expense of deeper social and spiritual values.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that left neoliberals viewed competition as a panacea. Private property, profit, and competition (the foundations of liberalism) were as socially corrosive as they were beneficial. They were, according to Wilhelm Röpke:
justifiable only within certain limits, and in remembering this we return to the realm beyond supply and demand. In other words, the market economy is not everything. It must find its place within a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition.
Competition, in other words, was as Luigi Einaudi put it, a paradox. It was beneficial, but could also be socially and morally ruinous.
The Goals and Boundaries of Public Policy
The perceived failures of liberalism guided the contrasting notions of what a reformed neoliberalism should look like. On the one hand, European left neoliberals and American progressives thought that liberalism suffered from certain inherent deficiencies that could not be resolved within the liberal paradigm and that called for mitigating policies and social-safety nets. Again, these resonated with familiar criticisms levied by the right and the left, such as, e.g., excessive individualism; the loss of shared values and a sense of community; a lack of “social integration”; worker alienation (in an essay titled “Social Policy or Vitalpolitik (Organic Policy),” Alexander Rüstow starts by citing Friedrich Engels’ 1945 “The Condition of the Working-Class in England”); and the socially explosive elements of competition and markets. These spiritual dislocations arguably weighed more than any material or economic shortcomings, and were at the root of the liberal debacle. As Walter Eucken argued:
Quite obviously, the reasons for the anti-capitalistic attitude of the masses cannot be found in any deterioration of the living conditions brought about by capitalism. […] The turning of the masses against capitalism is rather a phenomenon that can only be understood in terms of the sensibilities of modern man.
In response, the left neoliberals called for an “organic policy” that would approach markets and competition as not purely an economic, but also a social phenomena (a similar view was expressed by Justice Brandeis). In this new hybrid vision of liberalism, “there would be counterweights to competition and the mechanical operation of prices.” Competition and the market’s other imperatives would be tempered by balancing considerations and subordinated to “higher values” that were beyond the law of supply and demand—and beyond mere economic utility. As Wilhelm Röpke summarizes:
Competition, which we need as a regulator in a free market economy, comes up on all sides against limits which we would not wish to transgress. It remains morally and socially dangerous and can be defended only up to a point and with qualifications and modifications of all kinds.
Conversely, right neoliberals believed that the downfall of liberalism had been the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of its true ethos and an overabundance of conflicting rules and policies. It was not the inevitable upshot of liberalism itself. As Lionel Robbins posited:
It is not liberal institutions but the absence of such institutions which is responsible for the chaos of today.
Classical liberalism had stopped short on the road to exploring the full range of laws and institutions needed to sustain and perfect the “natural order.” But the prevalent social malaise—which had, no doubt, been adroitly instigated and exploited by collectivist demagogues—was not the result of some innate incompatibility between markets and human society. It had instead come about because of the failure to properly adjust the latter to the exigencies of the former.
Additionally, right neoliberals rejected “organic” or “third way” policies of the sort favored by the left neoliberals, because they believed that it was not within the remit of public policy to answer existential questions or to provide “meaning” or “social integration.” Granting the state the power to decide on such matters was a slippery slope that required it to override the preferences of some with its own. As such, it got dangerously close to the sort of collectivism that neoliberals rallied in opposition to in the first place. They also doubted the state’s ability to resolve such complex, value-laden questions. It was insights such as these that underpinned Friedrich Hayek’s theory of the gradual march towards serfdom and Ludwig von Mises’ quip that there is no such thing as a “third way” or a mixed economy.
In consequence, the solution was not to restrain, mollify, or limit the spread or depth of markets in order to align them with some past ideal of parochial life, but to improve markets and to acclimatize societies to their workings through better laws and institutions.
Two Different Visions for Liberalism For Two Different Visions of Antitrust
In keeping with the theme of this series, the prescriptions for antitrust policy made by each strand of neoliberalism are not doctrinally extrapolated from their broader vision of society.
Left neoliberals and American progressives took Marxist and fascist attacks on liberalism seriously, but sought to address them through less radical channels. They wanted a “mostly liberal” third-way social order, in which markets and competition would be tempered by a host of other social and political considerations that were mediated by the state. This meant opposing “big business” as a matter of principle, infusing antitrust law with a host of non-economic goals and values, and granting enforcers the necessary discretion to decide in cases of conflict.
Right neoliberals, on the other hand, sought to improve on the classical-liberal position through a more robust legal and institutional framework that operated primarily in the service of a single goal: economic efficiency. Economic efficiency—itself not a value-free notion—was, however, seen as a comparatively neutral, narrow, and predictable standard that, in turn, cabined enforcers’ scope of discretion and minimized the instances in which the state could override business decisions (and thus interfere with negative liberty). In the context of antitrust law, this tethered anticompetitive conduct and exemptions to the threshold requirement to find harms to consumers or to total welfare.
The pendulum of neoliberalism has swung in the past, with momentous implications for antitrust. The “Chicagoan” shift of the 1970s, for instance, was a move toward right neoliberalism, as was the “more economic approach” of EU competition law in the late 1990s. Conversely, more recent calls for the condemnation of “big business” on a range of moral and political grounds; “polycentric competition laws” with multiple goals and values; and the widening of state discretion to lead market developments in a socially desirable direction signal a move in the opposite direction.
How should the newest iteration of the neoliberal “battle for the soul of antitrust” be resolved?
On the one hand, left neoliberalism—or what Americans typically just call “progressivism”—has intuitive and emotional appeal, particularly in a time of growing anti-capitalistic fervor. Today, as in the 1930s, many believe that market logic has overstepped its legitimate boundaries and that the most successful private companies are a looming enemy. From this perspective, a “market in society” approach—in which the government has more leeway to restrain corporate power and reshape markets in accordance with a range of social or political considerations—may sound more humane to some.
If history teaches us anything, however, this populist approach to regulating competition is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, the overly complex web of mutually conflicting goals and values will inevitably require enforcement agencies to act as social engineers. In this position, they may use their enhanced discretion to decide whom or what to favor and to rank subjective values pursuant to personal moral heuristics. Public-choice theory and historical examples of state-led collectivist projects, however, counsel against assuming that government is able and willing to exercise such far-reaching oversight of society. In addition, as enforcers inevitably prove unfit to discharge their new role as philosopher-kings, and as their contradictory case law increasingly comes under contestation, activist attempts to widen the scope of antitrust law likely will be checked by the courts.
Second, like the non-economic arguments against concentration raised today by progressives such as Tim Wu and Lina Khan, the left neoliberal position is largely based on aesthetic preference and intuition—not fact. Röpkean complaints about big business ruining the bucolic landscape where men are “vitally satisfied” in their small, tight-knit communities rests on a very idiosyncratic vision of the good life (left neoliberals romanticized Switzerland, for instance), and it’s one many do not share in the 21st century. Equally particular were Justice Brandeis’ own yeoman sensibilities, which led him to reject bigness as a matter of principle (unlike today’s neo-Brandeisians, however, he was also skeptical of big government).
As to the persistent argument to curb “bigness” on political grounds: this would be more convincing if there was a clear, unambiguous relationship between market concentration or company size and the quality of democracy. This does not appear to be the case. In fact, the case for incorporating democratic concerns into antitrust seems unwittingly to rely on discredited Marxist theories about the relationship between German big business and the rise of Hitler. Unfortunately, these ideas have been so aggressively peddled by Marxists—who had a vested ideological interest in demonstrating that private corporations were the main culprits behind Nazism—during the 1960s and 70s that today they enjoy the status of dogma.
Alternatively, one might argue that the very existence of large concentrations of private economic power is antithetical to democracy because having the potential to exercise private power over another (without any actual interference) is anti-democratic (see here). But this lifts a particularistic vision of democracy—so-called republican democracy—over others. According to the more mainstream notion of liberal democracy, which gives precedence to negative freedom, any such interference with property rights may, in fact, be seen as deeply illiberal and undemocratic, especially as the inherent ambiguity of the “democracy” standard is likely to invite reprisals against political opponents.
Alas, right neoliberalism appears to be falling out of favor, as anti-market rhetoric seeps into the mainstream and politicians and intellectuals look to the past to find alternatives to a neoliberal system seen as too narrow and economistic. Ultimately, however, this may be precisely what we want public policy to be in a liberal world: focused on predictable and quantifiable standards that subject enforcers to the rigorous discipline of economic theory and leave them little space to act as social engineers or to exercise arbitrary authority. More than a century of intellectual effervescence and dangerous intellectual escapades has proven this to be the superior way to achieve both measurable policy outcomes that improve on the classical-liberal position and to avoid the Charybdis of state collectivism. In antitrust law, it has meant embracing economic analysis of the law and a narrow consumer-welfare standard to discern anticompetitive from procompetitive conduct.
In the end, today’s “battle for the soul” of antitrust is a proxy for a much wider conflict of visions. Changing the consumer-welfare standard and the architecture of antitrust enforcement along lines preferred by progressives and left neoliberals would be both a symptom and a cause of a broader philosophical shift toward a worldview that makes some of the same deleterious mistakes it purports to correct: excessive government discretion in overseeing the economy; the subordination of individual freedom to an array of collectivist goals mediated by a public aristocracy; and the substitution of evidence-based policy for emotional impetus.
While the inherent contradictions and incongruence of that vision mean that the pendulum is likely to eventually swing back in the right direction, the damage will already have been done. This is why we must defend the consumer-welfare standard today more vigorously than ever: because ultimately, much more than the future of a niche field of law is at stake.