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[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Early Morning

I wake up grudgingly to the loud ring of my phone’s preset alarm sound (I swear I gave third-party alarms a fair shot). I slide my feet into the bedroom slippers and mechanically chaperone my body to the coffee machine in the living room.

“Great,” I think to myself, “Out of capsules, again.” Still in my bathrobe, I make a grumpy face and post an interoperable story on social media. “Don’t even talk to me before I’ve had my morning coffee! #HateMondays.”

I flick my thumb and get a warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction as I consent to a series of privacy-related pop-ups on the official incumbent’s online marketplace website (I place immense importance on my privacy) before getting ready to sit through the usual fairness presentations.

I reach for a chair, grab a notepad and crack my neck sideways as I try to focus my (still) groggy brain on the kaleidoscope of thumbnails before me. “Time to do my part,” I sigh. My eyes—trained by years of practice—dart from left to right and from right to left, carefully scrutinizing each coffee capsule on offer for an equal number of seconds (ever since the self-preferencing ban, all available products within a search category are displayed simultaneously on the screen to avoid any explicit or tacit bias that could be interpreted as giving the online marketplace incumbent’s own products an unfair advantage over competitors).

After 13 brands and at least as many flavors, I select the platforms own brand, “Basic” (it matches my coffee machine and I’ve found through trial and error that they’re the least prone to malfunctioning), and then answer a series of questions to make sure I have actually given competitors’ products fair consideration. Platforms—including the online marketplace incumbent—use sneaky and illegal ways to leverage the attention market and give a leg up to their own products, such as offering lower prices or better delivery conditions. But with enough practice you learn to see through it. Not on my watch!

Exhausted but pleased with myself, I put the notepad down and my feet up on the coffee table. Victory.

Noon

I curse as I stub my toe on the office chair. Still with a pen in my right hand, ink dripping, I whip out my phone and pick Whatsapp to answer (I’ve never felt the need to use any of the other, newer apps—since everything is interoperable now). “No, of course I didn’t forget to do the groceries,” I tell my girlfriend with a tinge of deliberate frustration. But, of course, she knows that I know that she knows that I did.

I grab my notepad and almost fall over as I try to slide into my jeans and produce a grocery itinerary (like a grocery list, but longer) at the same time. “Trader Pete’s for fruits and vegetables, Gracey’s for canned goods, HTS for HTS frozen pizza,” I scribble, nerves tense.

(Not every company has gone the way of the online marketplace incumbent and some have decided they would be better off if they just sold their own products. After all, you can’t be fined for self-preferencing if you’re only selling your own stuff. Of course, the strategy is only viable in those industries in which vertical integration hasn’t been banned).

I finish getting dressed and dash down the stairs. I instinctively glance at my phone before getting in the car and immediately regret it, as I dismiss a bunch of notifications about malware infections. “Another app store that I’m striking from the list,” I think to myself as I turn on the ignition.

Late Afternoon

My girlfriend has already ordered a soda as I sit down at the table. “Sorry I’m late,” I mumble. We talk about her day and I tell her about the capsules I ordered (she nods approvingly) before we finally decide to order. I wave to the waiter and ask about the specials. A lanky young man no older than 19 fumbles through his (empty) pad and lists a couple of dishes.

He blurts out “homemade” and immediately turns pale. I look at my girlfriend nervously, and she stares back blankly—dazed. “Do you mean to say that it was made here, in this restaurant?” I ask in disbelief, dizzy. He comes up with some sorry excuse but I’m having none of it. I make my way to the toilet—sickened—and pull out my phone with a shaky hand. I have the Federal Trade Commission on speed-dial. I call and select number one: self-preferencing. They immediately put me through with someone. Sweating, I explain that the Italian restaurant on the corner between the 5th and Madison avenues just recommended me a special dish made by them—and barely even mentioned any of the specialties offered by the kebab joint next door. I assure the voice at the other end of the line that I had nothing to do it, and that I have not ordered—let alone tasted—the dish.

I rush out of the bathroom with blinders on and pull my girlfriend by the elbow. Her coat is on and she’s clearly impatient to get the hell out of there. As I reach for my jacket by the exit, an older man with a moustache approaches us with a bowed head and literally begs us to take a bottle of wine (no doubt a bribe for my silence). He assures us that the wine is not “della casa” (made by the restaurant), and that it’s, in fact, a French wine made by a competitor. I’m not having any of it: I bid him good day and slam the door behind us.

After years of debate and negotiations, European Lawmakers have agreed upon what will most likely be the final iteration of the Digital Markets Act (“DMA”), following the March 24 final round of “trilogue” talks. 

For the uninitiated, the DMA is one in a string of legislative proposals around the globe intended to “rein in” tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple through mandated interoperability requirements and other regulatory tools, such as bans on self-preferencing. Other important bills from across the pond include the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, the ACCESS Act, and the Open App Markets Act

In many ways, the final version of the DMA represents the worst possible outcome, given the items that were still up for debate. The Commission caved to some of the Parliament’s more excessive demands—such as sweeping interoperability provisions that would extend not only to “ancillary” services, such as payments, but also to messaging services’ basic functionalities. Other important developments include the addition of voice assistants and web browsers to the list of Core Platform Services (“CPS”), and symbolically higher “designation” thresholds that further ensure the act will apply overwhelmingly to just U.S. companies. On a brighter note, lawmakers agreed that companies could rebut their designation as “gatekeepers,” though it remains to be seen how feasible that will be in practice. 

We offer here an overview of the key provisions included in the final version of the DMA and a reminder of the shaky foundations it rests on.

Interoperability

Among the most important of the DMA’s new rules concerns mandatory interoperability among online platforms. In a nutshell, digital platforms that are designated as “gatekeepers” will be forced to make their services “interoperable” (i.e., compatible) with those of rivals. It is argued that this will make online markets more contestable and thus boost consumer choice. But as ICLE scholars have been explaining for some time, this is unlikely to be the case (here, here, and here). Interoperability is not the panacea EU legislators claim it to be. As former ICLE Director of Competition Policy Sam Bowman has written, there are many things that could be interoperable, but aren’t. The reason is that interoperability comes with costs as well as benefits. For instance, it may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to the market and for consumers to be able to choose among them. Economists Michael L. Katz and Carl Shapiro concur:

Although compatibility has obvious benefits, obtaining and maintaining compatibility often involves a sacrifice in terms of product variety or restraints on innovation.

There are other potential downsides to interoperability.  For instance, a given set of interoperable standards might be too costly to implement and/or maintain; it might preclude certain pricing models that increase output; or it might compromise some element of a product or service that offers benefits specifically because it is not interoperable (such as, e.g., security features). Consumers may also genuinely prefer closed (i.e., non-interoperable) platforms. Indeed: “open” and “closed” are not synonyms for “good” and “bad.” Instead, as Boston University’s Andrei Hagiu has shown, there are fundamental welfare tradeoffs at play that belie simplistic characterizations of one being inherently superior to the other. 

Further, as Sam Bowman observed, narrowing choice through a more curated experience can also be valuable for users, as it frees them from having to research every possible option every time they buy or use some product (if you’re unconvinced, try turning off your spam filter for a couple of days). Instead, the relevant choice consumers exercise might be in choosing among brands. In sum, where interoperability is a desirable feature, consumer preferences will tend to push for more of it. However, it is fundamentally misguided to treat mandatory interoperability as a cure-all elixir or a “super tool” of “digital platform governance.” In a free-market economy, it is not—or, it should not—be up to courts and legislators to substitute for businesses’ product-design decisions and consumers’ revealed preferences with their own, based on diffuse notions of “fairness.” After all, if we could entrust such decisions to regulators, we wouldn’t need markets or competition in the first place.

Of course, it was always clear that the DMA would contemplate some degree of mandatory interoperability – indeed, this was arguably the new law’s biggest selling point. What was up in the air until now was the scope of such obligations. The Commission had initially pushed for a comparatively restrained approach, requiring interoperability “only” in ancillary services, such as payment systems (“vertical interoperability”). By contrast, the European Parliament called for more expansive requirements that would also encompass social-media platforms and other messaging services (“horizontal interoperability”). 

The problem with such far-reaching interoperability requirements is that they are fundamentally out of pace with current privacy and security capabilities. As ICLE Senior Scholar Mikolaj Barczentewicz has repeatedly argued, the Parliament’s insistence on going significantly beyond the original DMA’s proposal and mandating interoperability of messaging services is overly broad and irresponsible. Indeed, as Mikolaj notes, the “likely result is less security and privacy, more expenses, and less innovation.”The DMA’s defensers would retort that the law allows gatekeepers to do what is “strictly necessary” (Council) or “indispensable” (Parliament) to protect safety and privacy (it is not yet clear which wording the final version has adopted). Either way, however, the standard may be too high and companies may very well offer lower security to avoid liability for adopting measures that would be judged by the Commission and the courts as going beyond what is “strictly necessary” or “indispensable.” These safeguards will inevitably be all the more indeterminate (and thus ineffectual) if weighed against other vague concepts at the heart of the DMA, such as “fairness.”

Gatekeeper Thresholds and the Designation Process

Another important issue in the DMA’s construction concerns the designation of what the law deems “gatekeepers.” Indeed, the DMA will only apply to such market gatekeepers—so-designated because they meet certain requirements and thresholds. Unfortunately, the factors that the European Commission will consider in conducting this designation process—revenues, market capitalization, and user base—are poor proxies for firms’ actual competitive position. This is not surprising, however, as the procedure is mainly designed to ensure certain high-profile (and overwhelmingly American) platforms are caught by the DMA.

From this perspective, the last-minute increase in revenue and market-capitalization thresholds—from 6.5 billion euros to 7.5 billion euros, and from 65 billion euros to 75 billion euros, respectively—won’t change the scope of the companies covered by the DMA very much. But it will serve to confirm what we already suspected: that the DMA’s thresholds are mostly tailored to catch certain U.S. companies, deliberately leaving out EU and possibly Chinese competitors (see here and here). Indeed, what would have made a difference here would have been lowering the thresholds, but this was never really on the table. Ultimately, tilting the European Union’s playing field against its top trading partner, in terms of exports and trade balance, is economically, politically, and strategically unwise.

As a consolation of sorts, it seems that the Commission managed to squeeze in a rebuttal mechanism for designated gatekeepers. Imposing far-reaching obligations on companies with no  (or very limited) recourse to escape the onerous requirements of the DMA would be contrary to the basic principles of procedural fairness. Still, it remains to be seen how this mechanism will be articulated and whether it will actually be viable in practice.

Double (and Triple?) Jeopardy

Two recent judgments from the European Court of Justice (ECJ)—Nordzucker and bpost—are likely to underscore the unintended effects of cumulative application of both the DMA and EU and/or national competition laws. The bpost decision is particularly relevant, because it lays down the conditions under which cases that evaluate the same persons and the same facts in two separate fields of law (sectoral regulation and competition law) do not violate the principle of ne bis in idem, also known as “double jeopardy.” As paragraph 51 of the judgment establishes:

  1. There must be precise rules to determine which acts or omissions are liable to be subject to duplicate proceedings;
  2. The two sets of proceedings must have been conducted in a sufficiently coordinated manner and within a similar timeframe; and
  3. The overall penalties must match the seriousness of the offense. 

It is doubtful whether the DMA fulfills these conditions. This is especially unfortunate considering the overlapping rules, features, and goals among the DMA and national-level competition laws, which are bound to lead to parallel procedures. In a word: expect double and triple jeopardy to be hotly litigated in the aftermath of the DMA.

Of course, other relevant questions have been settled which, for reasons of scope, we will have to leave for another time. These include the level of fines (up to 10% worldwide revenue, or 20% in the case of repeat offenses); the definition and consequences of systemic noncompliance (it seems that the Parliament’s draconian push for a general ban on acquisitions in case of systemic noncompliance has been dropped); and the addition of more core platform services (web browsers and voice assistants).

The DMA’s Dubious Underlying Assumptions

The fuss and exhilaration surrounding the impending adoption of the EU’s most ambitious competition-related proposal in decades should not obscure some of the more dubious assumptions which underpin it, such as that:

  1. It is still unclear that intervention in digital markets is necessary, let alone urgent.
  2. Even if it were clear, there is scant evidence to suggest that tried and tested ex post instruments, such as those envisioned in EU competition law, are not up to the task.
  3. Even if the prior two points had been established beyond any reasonable doubt (which they haven’t), it is still far from clear that DMA-style ex ante regulation is the right tool to address potential harms to competition and to consumers that arise in digital markets.

It is unclear that intervention is necessary

Despite a mounting moral panic around and zealous political crusading against Big Tech (an epithet meant to conjure antipathy and distrust), it is still unclear that intervention in digital markets is necessary. Much of the behavior the DMA assumes to be anti-competitive has plausible pro-competitive justifications. Self-preferencing, for instance, is a normal part of how platforms operate, both to improve the value of their core products and to earn returns to reinvest in their development. As ICLE’s Dirk Auer points out, since platforms’ incentives are to maximize the value of their entire product ecosystem, those that preference their own products frequently end up increasing the total market’s value by growing the share of users of a particular product (the example of Facebook’s integration of Instagram is a case in point). Thus, while self-preferencing may, in some cases, be harmful, a blanket presumption of harm is thoroughly unwarranted

Similarly, the argument that switching costs and data-related increasing returns to scale (in fact, data generally entails diminishing returns) have led to consumer lock-in and thereby raised entry barriers has also been exaggerated to epic proportions (pun intended). As we have discussed previously, there are plenty of counterexamples where firms have easily overcome seemingly “insurmountable” barriers to entry, switching costs, and network effects to disrupt incumbents. 

To pick a recent case: how many of us had heard of Zoom before the pandemic? Where was TikTok three years ago? (see here for a multitude of other classic examples, including Yahoo and Myspace).

Can you really say, with a straight face, that switching costs between messaging apps are prohibitive? I’m not even that active and I use at least six such apps on a daily basis: Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, Viber, Telegram, and Slack (it took me all of three minutes to download and start using Slack—my newest addition). In fact, chances are that, like me, you have always multihomed nonchalantly and had never even considered that switching costs were impossibly high (or that they were a thing) until the idea that you were “locked-in” by Big Tech was drilled into your head by politicians and other busybodies looking for trophies to adorn their walls.

What about the “unprecedented,” quasi-fascistic levels of economic concentration? First, measures of market concentration are sometimes anchored in flawed methodology and market definitions  (see, e.g., Epic’s insistence that Apple is a monopolist in the market for operating systems, conveniently ignoring that competition occurs at the smartphone level, where Apple has a worldwide market share of 15%—see pages 45-46 here). But even if such measurements were accurate, high levels of concentration don’t necessarily mean that firms do not face strong competition. In fact, as Nicolas Petit has shown, tech companies compete vigorously against each other across markets.

But perhaps the DMA’s raison d’etre rests less on market failure, but rather on a legal or enforcement failure? This, too, is misguided.

EU competition law is already up to the task

As Giuseppe Colangelo has argued persuasively (here and here), it is not at all clear that ex post competition regulation is insufficient to tackle anti-competitive behavior in the digital sector:

Ongoing antitrust investigations demonstrate that standard competition law still provides a flexible framework to scrutinize several practices described as new and peculiar to app stores. 

The recent Google Shopping decision, in which the Commission found that Google had abused its dominant position by preferencing its own online-shopping service in Google Search results, is a case in point (the decision was confirmed by the General Court and is now pending review before the European Court of Justice). The “self-preferencing” category has since been applied by other EU competition authorities. The Italian competition authority, for instance, fined Amazon 1 billion euros for preferencing its own distribution service, Fulfilled by Amazon, on the Amazon marketplace (i.e., Amazon.it). Thus, Article 102, which includes prohibitions on “applying dissimilar conditions to similar transactions,” appears sufficiently flexible to cover self-preferencing, as well as other potentially anti-competitive offenses relevant to digital markets (e.g., essential facilities).

For better or for worse, EU competition law has historically been sufficiently pliable to serve a range of goals and values. It has also allowed for experimentation and incorporated novel theories of harm and economic insights. Here, the advantage of competition law is that it allows for a more refined, individualized approach that can avoid some of the pitfalls of applying a one-size fits all model across all digital platforms. Those pitfalls include: harming consumers, jeopardizing the business models of some of the most successful and pro-consumer companies in existence, and ignoring the differences among platforms, such as between Google and Apple’s app stores. I turn to these issues next.

Ex ante regulation probably isn’t the right tool

Even if it were clear that intervention is necessary and that existing competition law was insufficient, it is not clear that the DMA is the right regulatory tool to address any potential harms to competition and consumers that may arise in the digital markets. Here, legislators need to be wary of unintended consequences, trade-offs, and regulatory fallibility. For one, It is possible that the DMA will essentially consolidate the power of tech platforms, turning them into de facto public utilities. This will not foster competition, but rather will make smaller competitors systematically dependent on so-called gatekeepers. Indeed, why become the next Google if you can just free ride off of the current Google? Why download an emerging messaging app if you can already interact with its users through your current one? In a way, then, the DMA may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Moreover, turning closed or semi-closed platforms such as the iOS into open platforms more akin to Android blurs the distinctions among products and dampens interbrand competition. It is a supreme paradox that interoperability and sideloading requirements purportedly give users more choice by taking away the option of choosing a “walled garden” model. As discussed above, overriding the revealed preferences of millions of users is neither pro-competitive nor pro-consumer (but it probably favors some competitors at the expense of those two things). 

Nor are many of the other obligations contemplated in the DMA necessarily beneficial to consumers. Do users really not want to have default apps come preloaded on their devices and instead have to download and install them manually? Ditto for operating systems. What is the point of an operating system if it doesn’t come with certain functionalities, such as a web browser? What else should we unbundle—keyboard on iOS? Flashlight? Do consumers really want to choose from dozens of app stores when turning on their new phone for the first time? Do they really want to have their devices cluttered with pointless split-screens? Do users really want to find all their contacts (and be found by all their contacts) across all messaging services? (I switched to Viber because I emphatically didn’t.) Do they really want to have their privacy and security compromised because of interoperability requirements?Then there is the question of regulatory fallibility. As Alden Abott has written on the DMA and other ex ante regulatory proposals aimed at “reining in” tech companies:

Sorely missing from these regulatory proposals is any sense of the fallibility of regulation. Indeed, proponents of new regulatory proposals seem to implicitly assume that government regulation of platforms will enhance welfare, ignoring real-life regulatory costs and regulatory failures (see here, for example). 

This brings us back to the second point: without evidence that antitrust law is “not up to the task,” far-reaching and untested regulatory initiatives with potentially high error costs are put forth as superior to long-established, consumer-based antitrust enforcement. Yes, antitrust may have downsides (e.g., relative indeterminacy and slowness), but these pale in comparison to the DMA’s (e.g., large error costs resulting from high information requirements, rent-seeking, agency capture).

Conclusion

The DMA is an ambitious piece of regulation purportedly aimed at ensuring “fair and open digital markets.” This implies that markets are not fair and open; or that they risk becoming unfair and closed absent far-reaching regulatory intervention at EU level. However, it is unclear to what extent such assumptions are borne out by the reality of markets. Are digital markets really closed? Are they really unfair? If so, is it really certain that regulation is necessary? Has antitrust truly proven insufficient? It also implies that DMA-style ex ante regulation is necessary to tackle it, and that the costs won’t outweigh the benefits. These are heroic assumptions that have never truly been seriously put to the test. 

Considering such brittle empirical foundations, the DMA was always going to be a contentious piece of legislation. However, there was always the hope that EU legislators would show restraint in the face of little empirical evidence and high error costs. Today, these hopes have been dashed. With the adoption of the DMA, the Commission, Council, and the Parliament have arguably taken a bad piece of legislation and made it worse. The interoperability requirements in messaging services, which are bound to be a bane for user privacy and security, are a case in point.

After years trying to anticipate the whims of EU legislators, we finally know where we’re going, but it’s still not entirely sure why we’re going there.

This post is the second in a planned series. The first installment can be found here.

In just over a century since its dawn, liberalism had reshaped much of the world along the lines of individualism, free markets, private property, contract, trade, and competition. A modest laissez-faire political philosophy that had begun to germinate in the minds of French Physiocrats in the early 18th century had, scarcely 150 years later, inspired the constitution of the world’s nascent leading power, the United States. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, as liberalism’s expansion eventually galvanized strong social, political, cultural, economic and even spiritual opposition, which coalesced around two main ideologies: socialism and fascism.

In this post, I explore the collectivist backlash against liberalism, its deeper meaning from the perspective of political philosophy, and the main features of its two main antagonists—especially as they relate to competition and competition regulation. Ultimately, the purpose is to show that, in trying to respond to the collectivist threat, successive iterations of neoliberalism integrated some of collectivism’s key postulates in an attempt to create a synthesis between opposing philosophical currents. Yet this “mostly” liberal synthesis, which serves as the philosophical basis of many competition systems today, is afflicted with the same collectivist flaws that the synthesis purported to overthrow (as I will elaborate in subsequent posts).

The Collectivist Backlash

By the early 20th century, two deeply illiberal movements bent on exposing and demolishing the fallacies and contradictions of liberalism had succeeded in capturing the imagination and support of the masses. These collectivist ideologies were Marxian socialism/communism on the left and fascism/Nazism on the right. Although ultimately distinct, they both rejected the basic postulates of classical liberalism. 

Socially, both agreed that liberalism uprooted traditional ways of life and dissolved the bonds of solidarity that had hitherto governed social relationships. This is the view expressed, e.g., in Karl Polanyi’s influential book The Great Transformation, in which the Christian socialist Polanyi contends that “disembedded” liberal markets would inevitably come to be governed again by the principles of solidarity and reciprocity (under socialism/communism). Similarly, although not technically a work on political economy or philosophy, Knut Hamsun’s 1917 novel Growth of the Soil perfectly captures the right’s rejection of liberal progress, materialism, industrialization, and the idealization of traditional bucolic life. The Norwegian Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature, later became an enthusiastic supporter of the Third Reich. 

Politically and culturally, Marxist historical materialism posited that liberal democracy (individual freedoms, periodic elections, etc.) and liberal culture (literature, art, cinema) served the interests of the economically dominant class: the bourgeoisie, i.e., the owners of the means of production. Fascists and Nazis likewise deplored liberal democracy as a sign of decadence and weakness and viewed liberal culture as an oxymoron: a hotbed of degeneracy built on the dilution of national and racial identities. 

Economically, the more theoretically robust leftist critiques rallied around Marx’ scientific socialism, which held that capitalism—the economic system that served as the embodiment of a liberal social order built on private property, contract, and competition—was exploitative and doomed to consume itself. From the right, it was argued that liberalism enabled individual interest to override what was good for the collective—an unpardonable sin in the eyes of an ideology built around robust nodes of collectivist identity, such as nation, race, and history.

A Recurrent Civilizational Struggle

The rise of socialism and fascism marked the beginning of a civilizational shift that many have referred to as the lowest ebb of liberalism. By the 1930s, totalitarian regimes utterly incompatible with a liberal worldview were in place in several European countries, such as Italy, Russia, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Romania. As Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises lamented, liberals and liberal ideas—at least, in the classical sense—had been driven to the fringes of society and academia, subject of scorn and ridicule. Even the liberally oriented, like economist John Maynard Keynes, were declaring the “end of laissez-faire.” 

At its most basic level, I believe that the conflict can be understood, from a philosophical perspective, as an iteration of the recurrent struggle between individualism and collectivism.

For instance, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies has described the perennial tension between two elementary ways of conceiving the social order: Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft. Gesellschaft refers to societies made up of individuals held together by formal bonds, such as contracts, whereas Gemeinschaft refers to communities held together by organic bonds, such as kinship, which function together as parts of an integrated whole. American law professor David Gerber explains that, from the Gemeinschaft perspective, competition was seen as an enemy:

Gemeinschaft required co-operation and the accommodation of individual interests to the commonwealth, but competition, in contrast, demanded that individuals be concerned first and foremost with their own self-interest. From this communitarian perspective, competition looked suspiciously like exploitation. The combined effect of competition and of political and economic inequality was that the strong would get stronger, the weak would get weaker, and the strong would use their strength to take from the weak.

Tonnies himself thought that dominant liberal notions of Gesellschaft would inevitably give way to greater integration of a socialist Gemeinschaft. This was somewhat reminiscent of Polanyi’s distinction between embedded and disembedded markets; Karl Popper’s “open” and “closed” societies; and possibly, albeit somewhat more remotely, David Hume’s distinction between “concord” and “union.” While we should be wary of reductivism, a common theme underlying these works (at least two of which are not liberal) is the conflict between opposing views of society: one that posits the subordination of the individual to some larger community or group versus another that anoints the individual’s well-being as the ultimate measure of the value of social arrangements. That basic tension, in turn, reverberates across social and economic questions, including as they relate to markets, competition, and the functions of the state.

 Competition Under Marxism

Karl Marx argued that the course of history was determined by material relations among the social classes under any given system of production (historical materialism and dialectical materialism, respectively). Under that view, communism was not a desirable “state of affairs,” but the inevitable consequence of social forces as they then existed. As Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

Thus, following the ineluctable laws of history, which Marx claimed to have discovered, capitalism would inevitably come to be replaced by socialism and, subsequently, communism. Under socialism, the means of production would be controlled not by individuals interacting in a free market, but by the political process under the aegis of the state, with the corollary that planning would come to substitute for competition as the economy’s steering mechanism. This would then give way to communism: a stateless utopia in which everything would be owned by the community and where there would be no class divisions. This would come about as a result of the interplay of several factors inherent to capitalism, such as the exploitation of the working class and the impossibility of sustained competition.

Per Marx, under capitalism, owners of the means of production (i.e., the capitalists or the bourgeoisie) appropriate the surplus value (i.e., the difference between the sale price of a product and the cost to produce it) generated by workers. Thus, the lower the wages and the longer the working hours of the worker, the greater the profit accrued to the capitalist. This was not an unfortunate byproduct that could be reformed, Marx posited, but a central feature of the system that was solvable only through revolution. Moreover, the laws, culture, media, politics, faith, and other institutions that might ordinarily open alternative avenues to nonviolent resolution of class tensions (the “super-structure”) were themselves byproducts of the underlying material relations of production (“structure” or “base”), and thus served to justify and uphold them.

The Marxian position further held that competition—the lodestar and governing principle of the capitalist economy—was, like the system itself, unsustainable. It would inevitably end up cannibalizing itself. But the claim is a bit more subtle than critics of communism often assume. As Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1939 pamphlet Marxism in our time:

Relations between capitalists, who exploit the workers, are defined by competition, which for long endures as the mainspring of capitalist progress.

Two notions expressed seamlessly in Trotsky’s statement need to be understood about the Marxian perception of competition. The first is that, since capitalism is exploitative of workers and competition among capitalists is the engine of capitalism, competition is itself effectively a mechanism of exploitation. Capitalists compete through the cheapening of commodities and the subsequent reinvestment of the surplus appropriated from labor into the expansion of productivity. The most exploitative capitalist, therefore, generally has the advantage (this hinges, of course, largely on the validity of the labor theory of value).

At the same time, however, Marxists (including Marx himself) recognized the economic and technological progress brought about through capitalism and competition. This is what Trotsky means when he refers to competition as the “mainspring of capitalist progress” and, by extension, the “historical justification of the capitalist.” The implication is that, if competition were to cease, the entire capitalist edifice and the political philosophy undergirding it (liberalism) would crumble, as well.

Whereas liberalism and competition were intertwined, liberalism and monopoly could not coexist. Instead, monopolists demanded—and, due to their political clout, were able to obtain—an increasingly powerful central state capable of imposing protective tariffs and other measures for their benefit and protection. Trotsky again:

The elimination of competition by monopoly marks the beginning of the disintegration of capitalist society. Competition was the creative mainspring of capitalism and the historical justification of the capitalist. By the same token the elimination of competition marks the transformation of stockholders into social parasites. Competition had to have certain liberties, a liberal atmosphere, a regime of democracy, of commercial cosmopolitanism. Monopoly needs as authoritative government as possible, tariff walls, “its own” sources of raw materials and arenas of marketing (colonies). The last word in the disintegration of monopolistic capital is fascism.

Marxian theory posited that this outcome was destined to happen for two reasons. First, because:

The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, ceteris paribus, on the productiveness of labor, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capital beats the smaller.

In other words, competition stimulated the progressive development of productivity, which depended on the scale of production, which depended, in turn, on firm size. Ultimately, therefore, competition ended up producing a handful of large companies that would subjugate competitors and cannibalize competition. Thus, the more wealth that capitalism generated—and Marx had no doubts that capitalism was a wealth-generating machine—the more it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Hence:

While stimulating the progressive development of technique, competition gradually consumes, not only the intermediary layers but itself as well. Over the corpses and the semi-corpses of small and middling capitalists, emerges an ever-decreasing number of ever more powerful capitalist overlords. Thus, out of “honest”, “democratic”, “progressive” competition grows irrevocably “harmful”, “parasitic”, “reactionary” monopoly.

The second reason Marxists believed the downfall of capitalism was inevitable is that the capitalists squeezed out of the market by the competitive process would become proletarians, which would create a glut of labor (“a growing reserve army of the unemployed”), which would in turn depress wages. This process of proletarianization, combined with the “revolutionary combination by association” of workers in factories would raise class consciousness and ultimately lead to the toppling of capitalism and the ushering in of socialism.

Thus, there is a clear nexus in Marxian theory between the end of competition and the end of capitalism (and therefore liberalism), whereby monopoly is deduced from the inherent tendencies of capitalism, and the end of capitalism, in turn, is deduced from the ineluctable advent of monopoly. What follows (i.e., socialism and communism) are collectivist systems that purport to be run according to the principles of solidarity and cooperation (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), where there is therefore no place (and no need) for competition. Instead, the Marxian Gemeinschaft would organize the economy around rationalistic lines, substituting cut-throat competition for centralized command by the state (later, the community) that would rein in hitherto uncontrollable economic forces in a heroic victory over the chaos and unpredictability of capitalism. This would, of course, also bring about the end of liberalism, with individualism, private property, and other liberal freedoms jettisoned as mouthpieces of bourgeoisie class interests. Chairman Mao Zedong put it succinctly:

We must affirm anew the discipline of the Party, namely:

1. The individual is subordinate to the organization;

2. The minority is subordinate to the majority.

Competition Under Fascism/Nazism

Formidable as it was, the Marxian attack on liberalism was just one side of the coin. Decades after the articulation of Marxian theory in the mid-19th century, fascism—founded by former socialist Benito Mussolini in 1915—emerged as a militant alternative to both liberalism and socialism/communism.

In essence, fascism was, like communism, unapologetically collectivist. But whereas socialists considered class to be the relevant building block of society, fascists viewed the individual as part of a greater national, racial, and historical entity embodied in the state and its leadership. As Mussolini wrote in his 1932 pamphlet The Doctrine of Fascism:

Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience of the universal, will of man as a historic entity. It is opposed to classical liberalism […] liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts.

Accordingly, fascism leads to an amalgamation of state and individual that is not just a politico-economic arrangement where the latter formally submits to the former, but a conception of life. This worldview is, of course, diametrically opposed to core liberal principles, such as personal freedom, individualism, and the minimal state. And surely enough, fascists saw these liberal values as signs of civilizational decadence (as expressed most notably by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West—a book that greatly inspired Nazi ideology). Instead, they posited that the only freedom worthy of the name existed within the state; that peace and cosmopolitanism were illusory; and that man was man only by virtue of his membership and contribution to nation and race.

But fascism was also opposed to Marxian socialism. At its most basic, the schism between the two worldviews can be understood in terms of the fascist rejection of materialism, which was a centerpiece of Marxian thought. Fascists denied the equivalence of material well-being and happiness, instead viewing man as fulfilled by hardship, war, and by playing his part in the grand tapestry of history, whose real protagonists were nation-states. While admitting the importance of economic life—e.g., of efficiency and technological innovation—fascists denied that material relations unequivocally determined the course of history, insisting instead on the preponderance of spiritual and heroic acts (i.e., acts with no economic motive) as drivers of social change. “Sanctity and heroism,” Mussolini wrote, are at the root of the fascist belief system, not material self-interest.  

This belief system also extended to economic matters, including competition. The Third Reich respected private property rights to some degree—among other reasons, because Adolf Hitler believed it would encourage creative competition and innovation. The Nazis’ overarching principle, however, was that all economic activity and all private property ultimately be subordinated to the “common good,” as interpreted by the state. In the words of Hitler:

I want everyone to keep what he has earned subject to the principle that the good of the community takes priority over that of the individual. But the State should retain control; every owner should feel himself to be an agent of the State. […] The Third Reich will always retain the right to control property owners.

The solution was a totalitarian system of government control that maintained private enterprise and profit incentives as spurs to efficient management, but narrowly circumscribed the traditional freedom of entrepreneurs. Economic historians Christoph Buchheim and Jonas Scherner have characterized the Nazis’ economic system as a “state-directed private ownership economy,” a partnership in which the state was the principal and the business was the agent. Economic activity would be judged according to the criteria of “strategic necessity and social utility,” encompassing an array of social, political, practical, and ideological goals. Some have referred to this as the “primacy of politics over economics” approach.

For instance, in supervising cross-border acquisitions (today’s mergers), the state “sought to suppress purely economic motives and to substitute some rough notion of ‘racial political’ priority when supervising industrial acquisitions or controlling existing German subsidiaries.” The Reich selectively applied the 1933 Act for the Formation of Compulsory Cartels in regulating cartels that had been formed under the Weimar Republic with the Cartel Act of 1923. But the legislation also appears to have been applied to protect small and medium-sized enterprises, an important source of the party’s political support, from ruinous competition. This is reminiscent of German industrialist and Nazi supporter Gustav Krupp’s “Third Form”: 

Between “free” economy and state capitalism there is a third form: the economy that is free from obligations, but has a sense of inner duty to the state. 

In short, competition and individual achievement had to be balanced with cooperation, mediated by the self-appointed guardians of the “general interest.” In contrast with Marxian socialism/communism, the long-term goal of the Nazi regime was not to abolish competition, but to harness it to serve the aims of the regime. As Franz Böhm—cofounder, with Walter Eucken, of the Freiburg School and its theory of “ordoliberalism”—wrote in his advice to the Nazi government:

The state regulatory framework gives the Reich economic leadership the power to make administrative commands applying either the indirect or the direct steering competence according to need, functionality, and political intent. The leadership may go as far as it wishes in this regard, for example, by suspending competition-based economic steering and returning to it when appropriate. 

Conclusion

After a century of expansion, opposition to classical liberalism started to coalesce around two nodes: Marxism on the left, and fascism/Nazism on the right. What ensued was a civilizational crisis of material, social, and spiritual proportions that, at its most basic level, can be understood as an iteration of the perennial struggle between individualism and collectivism. On the one hand, liberals like J.S. Mill had argued forcefully that “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” In stark contrast, Mussolini wrote that “fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the state and of the individual within the state.” The former position is rooted in a humanist view that enshrines the individual at the center of the social order; the latter in a communitarian ideal that sees him as subordinate to forces that supersede him.

As I have explained in the previous post, the philosophical undercurrents of both positions are ancient. A more immediate precursor of the collectivist standpoint, however, can be found in German idealism and particularly in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In The Philosophy of Right, he wrote:

A single person, I need hardly say, is something subordinate, and as such he must dedicate himself to the ethical whole. Hence, if the state claims life, the individual must surrender it. All the worth which the human being possesses […] he possesses only through the state.

This broader clash is reflected, directly and indirectly, in notions of competition and competition regulation. Classical liberals sought to liberate competition from regulatory fetters. Marxism “predicted” its downfall and envisioned a social order without it. Fascism/Nazism sought to wrest it from the hands of greedy self-interest and mold it to serve the many and the fluctuating objectives of the state and its vision of the common good

In the next post, I will discuss how this has influenced the neoliberal philosophy that is still at the heart of many competition systems today. I will argue that two strands of neoliberalism emerged, which each attempted to resolve the challenge of collectivism in distinct ways. 

One strand, associated with a continental understanding of liberalism and epitomized by the Freiburg School, sought to strike a “mostly liberal” compromise between liberalism and collectivism—a “Third Way” between opposites. In doing so, however, it may have indulged in some of the same collectivist vices that it initially sought to avoid— such as vast government discretion and the imposition of myriad “higher” goals on society. 

The other strand, represented by Anglo-American liberalism of the sort espoused by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, was less conciliatory. It attempted to reform, rather than reinvent, liberalism. Their prescriptions involved creating a strong legal framework conducive to economic efficiency against a background of limited government discretion, freedom, and the rule of law.

The Autorità Garante della Concorenza e del Mercato (AGCM), Italy’s competition and consumer-protection watchdog, on Nov. 25 handed down fines against Google and Apple of €10 million each—the maximum penalty contemplated by the law—for alleged unfair commercial practices. Ultimately, the two decisions stand as textbook examples of why regulators should, wherever possible, strongly defer to consumer preferences, rather than substitute their own.

The Alleged Infringements

The AGCM has made two practically identical cases built around two interrelated claims. The first claim is that the companies have not properly informed users that the data they consent to share will be used for commercial purposes. The second is that, by making users opt out if they don’t want to consent to data sharing, the companies unduly restrict users’ freedom of choice and constrain them to accept terms they would not have otherwise accepted.

According to the AGCM, Apple and Google’s behavior infringes Articles 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 of the Italian Consumer Code. The first three provisions prohibit misleading business practices, and are typically applied to conduct such as lying, fraud, the sale of unsafe products, or the omission or otherwise deliberate misrepresentation of facts in ways that would deceive the average user. The conduct caught by the first claim would allegedly fall into this category.

The last two provisions, by contrast, refer to aggressive business practices such as coercion, blackmail, verbal threats, and even physical harassment capable of “limiting the freedom of choice of users.” The conduct described in the second claim would fall here.

The First Claim

The AGCM’s first claim does not dispute that the companies informed users about the commercial use of their data. Instead, the authority argues that the companies are not sufficiently transparent in how they inform users.

Let’s start with Google. Upon creating a Google ID, users can click to view the “Privacy and Terms” disclosure, which details the types of data that Google processes and the reasons that it does so. As Figure 1 below demonstrates, the company explains that it processes data: “to publish personalized ads, based on your account settings, on Google services as well as on other partner sites and apps” (translation of the Italian text highlighted in the first red rectangle). Below, under the “data combination” heading, the user is further informed that: “in accordance with the settings of your account, we show you personalized ads based on the information gathered from your combined activity on Google and YouTube” (the section in the second red rectangle).

Figure 1: ACGM Google decision, p. 7

After creating a Google ID, a pop-up once again reminds the user that “this Google account is configured to include the personalization function, which provides tips and personalized ads based on the information saved on your account. [And that] you can select ‘other options’ to change the personalization settings as well as the information saved in your account.”

The AGCM sees two problems with this. First, the user must click on “Privacy and Terms” to be told what Google does with their data and why. Viewing this information is not simply an unavoidable step in the registration process. Second, the AGCM finds it unacceptable that the commercial use of data is listed together with other, non-commercial uses, such as improved quality, security, etc. (the other items listed in Figure 1). The allegation is that this leads to confusion and makes it less likely that users will notice the commercial aspects of data usage.

A similar argument is made in the Apple decision, where the AGCM similarly contends that users are not properly informed that their data may be used for commercial purposes. As shown in Figure 2, upon creating an Apple ID, users are asked to consent to receive “communications” (notifications, tips, and updates on Apple products, services, and software) and “Apps, music, TV, and other” (latest releases, exclusive content, special offers, tips on apps, music, films, TV programs, books, podcasts, Apple Pay and others).

Figure 2: AGCM Apple decision, p. 8

If users click on “see how your data is managed”—located just above the “Continue” button, as shown in Figure 2—they are taken to another page, where they are given more detailed information about what data Apple collects and how it is used. Apple discloses that it may employ user data to send communications and marketing e-mails about new products and services. Categories are clearly delineated and users are reminded that, if they wish to change their marketing email preferences, they can do so by going to appleid.apple.com. The word “data” is used 40 times and the taxonomy of the kind of data gathered by Apple is truly comprehensive. See for yourself.

The App Store, Apple Book Store, and iTunes Store have similar clickable options (“see how your data is managed”) that lead to pages with detailed information about how Apple uses data. This includes unambiguous references to so-called “commercial use” (e.g., “Apple uses information on your purchases, downloads, and other activities to send you tailored ads and notifications relative to Apple marketing campaigns.”)

But these disclosures failed to convince the AGCM that users are sufficiently aware that their data may be used for commercial purposes. The two reasons cited in the opinion mirror those in the Google decision. First, the authority claims that the design of the “see how your data is managed” option does not “induce the user to click on it” (see the marked area in Figure 2). Further, it notes that accessing the “Apple ID Privacy” page requires a “voluntary and eventual [i.e., hypothetical]” action by the user. According to the AGCM, this leads to a situation in which “the average user” is not “directly and intuitively” aware of the magnitude of data used for commercial purposes, and is instead led to believe that data is shared to improve the functionality of the Apple product and the Apple ecosystem.

The Second Claim

The AGCM’s second claim contends that the opt-out mechanism used by both Apple and Google “limits and conditions” users’ freedom of choice by nudging them toward the companies’ preferred option—i.e., granting the widest possible consent to process data for commercial use.

In Google’s case, the AGCM first notes that, when creating a Google ID, a user must take an additional discretionary step before they can opt out of data sharing. This refers to mechanism in which a user must click the words “OTHER OPTIONS,” in bright blue capitalized font, as shown in Figure 3 below (first blue rectangle, upper right corner).

Figure 3: AGCM Google decision, p. 22

The AGCM’s complaint here is that it is insufficient to grant users merely the possibility of opting out, as Google does. Rather, the authority contends, users must be explicitly asked whether they wish to share their data. As in the first claim, the AGCM holds that questions relating to the commercial use of data must be woven in as unavoidable steps in the registration process.

The AGCM also posits that the opt-out mechanism itself (in the lower left corner of Figure 3) “restricts and conditions” users’ freedom of choice by preventing them from “expressly and preventively” manifesting their real preferences. The contention is that, if presented with an opt-in checkbox, users would choose differently—and thus, from the authority’s point of view, choose correctly. Indeed, the AGCM concludes from the fact that the vast majority of users have not opted out from data sharing (80-100%, according to the authority), that the only reasonable conclusion is that “a significant number of subscribers have been induced to make a commercial decision without being aware of it.”

A similar argument is made in the Apple decision. Here, the issue is the supposed difficulty of the opt-out mechanism, which the AGCM describes as “intricate and non-immediate.” If a user wishes to opt out of data sharing, he or she would not only have to “uncheck” the checkboxes displayed in Figure 2, but also do the same in the Apple Store with respect to their preferences for other individual Apple products. This “intricate” process generally involves two to three steps. For instance, to opt out of “personalized tips,” a user must first go to Settings, then select their name, then multimedia files, and then “deactivate personalized tips.”

According to the AGCM, the registration process is set up in such a way that the users’ consent is not informed, free, and specific. It concludes:

The consumer, entangled in this system, of which he is not aware, is conditioned in his choices, undergoing the transfer of his data, which the professional can dispose of for his own promotional purposes.

The AGCM’s decisions fail on three fronts. They are speculative, paternalistic, and subject to the Nirvana Fallacy. They are also underpinned by an extremely uncharitable conception of what the “average user” knows and understands.

Epistemic Modesty Under Uncertainty

The AGCM makes far-reaching and speculative assumptions about user behavior based on incomplete knowledge. For instance, both Google and Apple’s registration processes make clear that they gather users’ data for advertising purposes—which, especially in the relevant context, cannot be interpreted by a user as anything but “commercial” (even under the AGCM’s pessimistic assumptions about the “average user.”) It’s true that the disclosure requires the user to click “see how your data is managed” (Apple) or “Privacy and Terms” (Google). But it’s not at all clear that this is less transparent than, say, the obligatory scroll-text that most users will ignore before blindly clicking to accept.

For example, in registering for a Blizzard account (a gaming service), users are forced to read the company’s lengthy terms and conditions, with information on the “commercial use” of data buried somewhere in a seven-page document of legalese. Does it really follow from this that Blizzard users are better informed about the commercial use of their data? I don’t think so.

Rather than the obligatory scroll-text, the AGCM may have in mind some sort of pop-up screen. But would this mean that companies should also include separate, obligatory pop-ups for every other relevant aspect of their terms and conditions? This would presumably take us back to square one, as the AGCM’s complaint was that Google amalgamated commercial and non-commercial uses of data under the same title. Perhaps the pop-up for the commercial use of data would have to be made more conspicuous. This would presumably require a normative hierarchy of the companies’ terms and conditions, listed in order of relevance for users. That would raise other thorny questions. For instance, should information about the commercial use of data be more prominently displayed than information about safety and security?

A reasonable alternative—especially under conditions of uncertainty—would be to leave Google and Apple alone to determine the best way to inform consumers, because nobody reads the terms and conditions anyway, no matter how they are presented. Moreover, the AGCM offers no evidence to support its contention that companies’ opt-out mechanisms lead more users to share their data than would freely choose to do so.

Whose Preferences?

The AGCM also replaces revealed user preferences with its own view of what those preferences should be. For instance, the AGCM doesn’t explain why opting to share data for commercial purposes would be, in principle, a bad thing. There are a number of plausible and legitimate explanations for why a user would opt for more generous data-sharing arrangements: they may believe that data sharing will improve their experience; may wish to receive tailored ads rather than generic ones; or may simply value a company’s product and see data sharing as a fair exchange. None of these explanations—or, indeed, any others—are ever contemplated in the AGCM decision.

Assuming that opt-outs, facultative terms and conditions screens, and two-to-three-step procedures to change one’s preferences truncate users’ “freedom of choice” is paternalistic and divorced from the reality of the average person, and the average Italian.

Ideal or Illegal?

At the heart of the AGCM decisions is the notion that it is proper to punish market actors wherever the real doesn’t match a regulator’s vision of the ideal—commonly known as “the Nirvana fallacy.” When the AGCM claims that Apple and Google do not properly disclose the commercial use of user data, or that the offered opt-out mechanism is opaque or manipulative, the question is: compared to what? There will always be theoretically “better” ways of granting users the choice to opt out of sharing their data. The test should not be whether a company falls short of some ideal imagined practice, but whether the existing mechanism actually deceives users.

There is nothing in the AGCM’s decisions to suggest that it does. Depending on how precipitously one lowers the bar for what the “average user” would understand, just about any intervention might be justified, in principle. But to justify the AGCM’s intervention in this case requires stretching the plausible ignorance of the average user to its absolute theoretical limits.

Conclusion

Even if a court were to buy the AGCM’s impossibly low view of the “average user” and grant the first claim—which would be unfortunate, but plausible — not even the most liberal reading of Articles 24 and 25 can support the view that “overly complex, non-immediate” opt-outs, as interpreted by the AGCM, limit users’ freedom of choice in any way comparable to the type of conduct described in those provisions (coercion, blackmail, verbal threats, etc.)

The AGCM decisions are shot through with unsubstantiated assumptions about users’ habits and preferences, and risk imposing undue burdens not only on the companies, but on users themselves. With some luck, they will be stricken down by a sensible judge. In the meantime, however, the trend of regulatory paternalism and over-enforcement continues. Much like in the United States, where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has occasionally engaged in product-design decisions that substitute the commission’s own preferences for those of consumers, regulators around the world continue to think they know better than consumers about what’s in their best interests.

“Edinburgh, Great Britain – July 7, 2010: Statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh in front of St. Giles Cathedral at Parliament Square.”

The interplay among political philosophy, competition, and competition law remains, with some notable exceptions, understudied in the literature. Indeed, while examinations of the intersection between economics and competition law have taught us much, relatively little has been said about the value frameworks within which different visions of competition and competition law operate.

As Ronald Coase reminds us, questions of economics and political philosophy are interrelated, so that “problems of welfare economics must ultimately dissolve into a study of aesthetics and morals.” When we talk about economics, we talk about political philosophy, and vice versa. Every political philosophy reproduces economic prescriptions that reflect its core tenets. And every economic arrangement, in turn, evokes the normative values that undergird it. This is as true for socialism and fascism as it is for liberalism and neoliberalism.

Many economists have understood this. Milton Friedman, for instance, who spent most of his career studying social welfare, not ethics, admitted in Free to Choose that he was ultimately concerned with the preservation of a value: the liberty of the individual. Similarly, the avowed purpose of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty was to maximize the state of human freedom, with coercion—i.e., the opposite of freedom—described as evil. James Buchanan fought to preserve political philosophy within the economic discipline, particularly worrying that:

Political economy was becoming unmoored from the types of philosophic and institutional analysis which were previously central to the field. In its flight from reality, Buchanan feared economics was in danger of abandoning social-philosophic issues for exclusively technical questions.

— John Kroencke, “Three Essays in the History of Economics”

Against this background, I propose to look at competition and competition law from a perspective that explicitly recognizes this connection. The goal is not to substitute, but rather to complement, our comparatively broad understanding of competition economics with a better grasp of the deeper normative implications of regulating competition in a certain way. If we agree with Robert Bork that antitrust is a subcategory of ideology that reflects and reacts upon deeper tensions in our society, the exercise might also be relevant beyond the relatively narrow confines of antitrust scholarship (which, on the other hand, seem to be getting wider and wider).

The Classical Liberal Revolution and the Unshackling of Competition

Mercantilism

When Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, heavy economic regulation of the market through laws, by-laws, tariffs, and special privileges was the norm. Restrictions on imports were seen as protecting national wealth by preventing money from flowing out of the country—a policy premised on the conflation of money with wealth. A morass of legally backed and enforceable monopoly rights, granted either by royal decree or government-sanctioned by-laws, marred competition. Guilds reigned over tradesmen by restricting entry into the professions and segregating markets along narrow geographic lines. At every turn, economic activity was shot through with rules, restrictions, and regulations.

The Revolution in Political Economy

Classical liberals like Smith departed from the then-dominant mercantilist paradigm by arguing that nations prospered through trade and competition, and not protectionism and monopoly privileges. He demonstrated that both the seller and the buyer benefited from trade; and theorized the market as an automatic mechanism that allocated resources efficiently through the spontaneous, self-interested interaction of individuals.

Undergirding this position was the notion of the natural order, which Smith carried over from his own Theory of Moral Sentiments and which elaborated on arguments previously espoused by the French physiocrats (a neologism meaning “the rule of nature”), such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, François Quesnay, and Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay. The basic premise was that there existed a harmonious order of things established and maintained by means of subconscious balancing of the egoism of the individual and the greatest welfare for all.

The implications of this modest insight, which clashed directly with established mercantilist orthodoxy, were tremendous. If human freedom maximized social welfare, the justification for detailed government intervention in the economy was untenable. The principles of laissez-faire (a term probably coined by Gournay, who had been Turgot’s mentor) instead prescribed that the government should adopt a “night watchman” role, tending to modest tasks such as internal and external defense, the mediation of disputes, and certain public works that were not deemed profitable for the individual.

Freeing Competition from the Mercantilist Yoke

Smith’s general attitude also carried over to competition. Following the principles described above, classical liberals believed that price and product adjustments following market interactions among tradesmen (i.e., competition) would automatically maximize social utility. As Smith argued:

In general, if any branch of trade, or any division of labor, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so.

This did not mean that competition occurred in a legal void. Rather, Smith’s point was that there was no need to construct a comprehensive system of competition regulation, as markets would oversee themselves so long as a basic legal and institutional framework was in place and government refrained from actively abetting monopolies. Under this view, the only necessary “competition law” would be those individual laws that made competition possible, such as private property rights, contracts, unfair competition laws, and the laws against government and guild restrictions.

Liberal Political Philosophy: Utilitarian and Deontological Perspectives on Liberty and Individuality

Of course, this sort of volte face in political economy needed to be buttressed by a robust philosophical conception of the individual and the social order. Such ontological and moral theories were articulated in, among others, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. At the heart of the liberal position was the idea that undue restrictions on human freedom and individuality were not only intrinsically despotic, but also socially wasteful, as they precluded men from enjoying the fruits of the exercise of such freedoms. For instance, infringing the freedom to trade and to compete would rob the public of cheaper goods, while restrictions on freedom of expression would arrest the development of thoughts and ideas through open debate.

It is not clear whether the material or the ethical argument for freedom came first. In other words, whether classical liberalism constituted an ex-post rationalization of a moral preference for individual liberty, or precisely the reverse. The question may be immaterial, as classical liberals generally believed that the deontological and the consequentialist cases for liberty—save in the most peripheral of cases (e.g., violence against others)—largely overlapped.

Conclusion

In sum, classical liberalism offered a holistic, integrated view of societies, markets, morals, and individuals that was revolutionary for the time. The notion of competition as a force to be unshackled—rather than actively constructed and chaperoned—flowed organically from that account and its underlying values and assumptions. These included such values as personal freedom and individualism, along with foundational metaphysical presuppositions, such as the existence of a harmonious natural order that seamlessly guided individual actions for the benefit of the whole.

Where such base values and presumptions are eroded, however, the notion of a largely spontaneous, self-sustaining competitive process loses much of its rational, ethical, and moral legitimacy. Competition thus ceases to be tenable on its “own two feet” and must either be actively engineered and protected, or abandoned altogether as a viable organizing principle. In this sense, the crisis of liberalism the West experienced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—which attacked the very foundations of classical liberal doctrine—can also be read as a crisis of competition.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the collectivist backlash against liberalism.