Spring is here, and hope springs eternal in the human breast that competition enforcers will focus on welfare-enhancing initiatives, rather than on welfare-reducing interventionism that fails the consumer welfare standard.
Fortuitously, on March 27, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) are hosting an international antitrust-enforcement summit, featuring senior state and foreign antitrust officials (see here). According to an FTC press release, “FTC Chair Lina M. Khan and DOJ Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter, as well as senior staff from both agencies, will facilitate discussions on complex challenges in merger and unilateral conduct enforcement in digital and transitional markets.”
I suggest that the FTC and DOJ shelve that topic, which is the focus of endless white papers and regular enforcement-oriented conversations among competition-agency staffers from around the world. What is there for officials to learn? (Perhaps they could discuss the value of curbing “novel” digital-market interventions that undermine economic efficiency and innovation, but I doubt that this important topic would appear on the agenda.)
Rather than tread familiar enforcement ground (albeit armed with novel legal theories that are known to their peers), the FTC and DOJ instead should lead an international dialogue on applying agency resources to strengthen competition advocacy and to combat anticompetitive market distortions. Such initiatives, which involve challenging government-generated impediments to competition, would efficiently and effectively promote the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach to competition policy.
The World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have jointly described the role and importance of competition advocacy:
[C]ompetition may be lessened significantly by various public policies and institutional arrangements as well [as by private restraints]. Indeed, private restrictive business practices are often facilitated by various government interventions in the marketplace. Thus, the mandate of the competition office extends beyond merely enforcing the competition law. It must also participate more broadly in the formulation of its country’s economic policies, which may adversely affect competitive market structure, business conduct, and economic performance. It must assume the role of competition advocate, acting proactively to bring about government policies that lower barriers to entry, promote deregulation and trade liberalization, and otherwise minimize unnecessary government intervention in the marketplace.
The FTC and DOJ have a proud history of competition-advocacy initiatives. In an article exploring the nature and history of FTC advocacy efforts, FTC scholars James Cooper, Paul Pautler, & Todd Zywicki explained:
Competition advocacy, broadly, is the use of FTC expertise in competition, economics, and consumer protection to persuade governmental actors at all levels of the political system and in all branches of government to design policies that further competition and consumer choice. Competition advocacy often takes the form of letters from the FTC staff or the full Commission to an interested regulator, but also consists of formal comments and amicus curiae briefs.
Cooper, Pautler, & Zywicki also provided guidance—derived from an evaluation of FTC public-interest interventions—on how advocacy initiatives can be designed to maximize their effectiveness.
During the Trump administration, the FTC’s Economic Liberty Task Force shone its advocacy spotlight on excessive state occupational-licensing restrictions that create unwarranted entry barriers and distort competition in many lines of work. (The Obama administration in 2016 issued a report on harms to workers that stem from excessive occupational licensing, but it did not accord substantial resources to advocacy efforts in this area.)
Although its initiatives in this area have been overshadowed in recent decades by the FTC, DOJ over the years also has filed a large number of competition-advocacy comments with federal and state entities.
Anticompetitive Market Distortions (ACMDs)
ACMDs refer to government-imposed restrictions on competition. These distortions may take the form of distortions of international competition (trade distortions), distortions of domestic competition, or distortions of property-rights protection (that with which firms compete). Distortions across any of these pillars could have a negative effect on economic growth. (See here.)
Because they enjoy state-backed power and the force of law, ACMDs cannot readily be dislodged by market forces over time, unlike purely private restrictions. What’s worse, given the role that governments play in facilitating them, ACMDs often fall outside the jurisdictional reach of both international trade laws and domestic competition laws.
The OECD’s Competition Assessment Toolkit sets forth four categories of regulatory restrictions that distort competition. Those are provisions that:
- limit the number or range of providers;
- limit the ability of suppliers to compete;
- reduce the incentive of suppliers to compete; and that
- limit the choices and information available to consumers.
When those categories explicitly or implicitly favor domestic enterprises over foreign enterprises, they may substantially distort international trade and investment decisions, to the detriment of economic efficiency and consumer welfare in multiple jurisdictions.
Given the non-negligible extraterritorial impact of many ACMDs, directing the attention of foreign competition agencies to the ACMD problem would be a particularly efficient use of time at gatherings of peer competition agencies from around the world. Peer competition agencies could discuss strategies to convince their governments to phase out or limit the scope of ACMDs.
The collective action problem that may prevent any one jurisdiction from acting unilaterally to begin dismantling its ACMDs might be addressed through international trade negotiations (perhaps, initially, plurilateral negotiations) aimed at creating ACMD remedies in trade treaties. (Shanker Singham has written about crafting trade remedies to deal with ACMDs—see here, for example.) Thus, strategies whereby national competition agencies could “pull in” their fellow national trade agencies to combat ACMDs merit exploration. Why not start the ball rolling at next week’s international antitrust-enforcement summit? (Hint, why not pull in a bunch of DOJ and FTC economists, who may feel underappreciated and underutilized at this time, to help out?)
If the Biden administration truly wants to strengthen the U.S. economy by bolstering competitive forces, the best way to do that would be to reallocate a substantial share of antitrust-enforcement resources to competition-advocacy efforts and the dismantling of ACMDs.
In order to have maximum impact, such efforts should be backed by a revised “whole of government” initiative – perhaps embodied in a new executive order. That new order should urge federal agencies (including the “independent” agencies that exercise executive functions) to cooperate with the DOJ and FTC in rooting out and repealing anticompetitive regulations (including ACMDs that undermine competition by distorting trade flows).
The DOJ and FTC should also be encouraged by the executive order to step up their advocacy efforts at the state level. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could be pulled in to help identify ACMDs, and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office (USTR), with DOJ and FTC economic assistance, could start devising an anti-ACMD negotiating strategy.
In addition, the FTC and DOJ should directly urge foreign competition agencies to engage in relatively more competition advocacy. The U.S. agencies should simultaneously push to make competition-advocacy promotion a much higher International Competition Network priority (see here for the ICN Advocacy Working Group’s 2022-2025 Work Plan). The FTC and DOJ could simultaneously encourage their competition-agency peers to work with their fellow trade agencies (USTR’s peer bureaucracies) to devise anti-ACMD negotiating strategies.
These suggestions may not quite be ripe for meetings to be held in a few days. But if the administration truly believes in an all-of-government approach to competition, and is truly committed to multilateralism, these recommendations should be right up its alley. There will be plenty of bilateral and plurilateral trade and competition-agency meetings (not to mention the World Bank, OECD, and other multilateral gatherings) in the next year or so at which these sensible, welfare-enhancing suggestions could be advanced. After all, “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”