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[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Nov. 10 Policy Statement Regarding the Scope of Unfair Methods of Competition Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act—adopted by a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Christine Wilson issuing a dissenting statement—holds out the prospect of dramatic new enforcement initiatives going far beyond anything the FTC has done in the past. Of particular note, the statement abandons the antitrust “rule of reason,” rejects the “consumer welfare standard” that has long guided FTC competition cases, rejects economic analysis, rejects relevant precedent, misleadingly discusses legislative history, and cites inapposite and dated case law.

And what is the statement’s aim?  As Commissioner Wilson aptly puts it, the statement “announces that the Commission has the authority summarily to condemn essentially any business conduct it finds distasteful.” This sweeping claim, which extends far beyond the scope of prior Commission pronouncements, might be viewed as mere puffery with no real substantive effect: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Various scholarly commentators have already explored the legal and policy shortcomings of this misbegotten statement (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say there is general agreement that, as Gus Hurwitz explains, the statement “is non-precedential and lacks the force of law.”

The statement’s almost certain lack of legal effect, however, does not mean it is of no consequence. Businesses are harmed by legal risk, even if they are eventually likely to prevail in court. Markets react negatively to antitrust lawsuits, and thus firms may be expected to shy away from efficient profitable behavior that may draw the FTC’s ire. The resources firms redirect to less-efficient conduct impose costs on businesses and ultimately consumers. (And when meritless FTC lawsuits still come, wasteful litigation-related costs will be coupled with unwarranted reputational harm to businesses.)

Moreover, as Wilson points out, uncertainty about what the Commission may characterize as unfair “does not allow businesses to structure their conduct to avoid possible liability. . . . [T]he Policy Statement . . . significantly increases uncertainty for businesses[,] which . . . . are left with no navigational tools to map the boundaries of lawful and unlawful conduct.” This will further disincentivize new and innovative (and easily misunderstood) business initiatives. In the perhaps-vain hope that a Commission majority will take note of these harms and have second thoughts about retention of the statement, I will briefly summarize the legal case against the statement’s effectiveness. The FTC actually would be better able to “push the Section 5 envelope” a bit through some carefully tailored innovative enforcement actions if it could jettison the legal baggage that the statement represents. To understand why, a brief review of FTC competition rulemaking and competition enforcement authority is warranted

FTC Competition Rulemaking

As I and others have written at great length (see, for examples, this compilation of essays on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences), the case for substantive FTC competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is exceedingly weak. In particular (see my July 2022 Truth on the Market commentary):

First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.

Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.

Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.

The 2022 statement raises these four problems in spades.

First, the Supreme Court has stated that the non-delegation doctrine requires that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. There is no such principle that may be drawn from the statement, which emphasizes that unfair business conduct “may be coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” The conduct also must tend “to negatively affect competitive conditions – whether by affecting consumers, workers, or other market participants.” Those descriptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they are the antithesis of an “intelligible principle.”

Second, the passing nod to rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. The Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC (holding that the FTC could not obtain equitable monetary relief under its authority to seek injunctions) embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.” While multiple federal courts had upheld the FTC’s authority to obtain injunctive monetary relief prior to its loss in the AMG case, only one nearly 50-year-old decision, National Petroleum Refiners, supports substantive competition-rulemaking authority, and its reasoning is badly dated. Nothing in the 2022 statement makes a convincing case for giving substantive import to Section 6(g).   

Third, given the extremely vague terms used to describe unfair method of competition in the 2022 statement (see first point, above), any effort to invoke them to find a source of authority to define new categories of competition-related violations would be sure to raise claims of agency arbitrariness and capriciousness under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Admittedly, the “arbitrary and capricious review” standard “has gone through numerous cycles since the enactment of the APA” and currently is subject to some uncertainty. Nevertheless, the statement’s untrammeled breadth and lack of clear definitions for unfair competitive conduct suggests that courts would likely employ a “hard look review,” which would make it relatively easy for novel Section 6(g) rules to be deemed arbitrary (especially in light of the skepticism of broad FTC claims of authority that is implicit in the Supreme Court’s unanimous AMG holding).

Fourth, given the economywide breadth of the phrase “unfair methods of competition,” it is quite possible (in fact, probably quite likely) that the Supreme Court would invoke the “major questions doctrine” and hold that unfair methods of competition rulemaking is “too important” to be left to the FTC. Under this increasingly invoked doctrine, “the Supreme Court has rejected agency claims of regulatory authority when (1) the underlying claim of authority concerns an issue of vast ‘economic and political significance,’ and (2) Congress has not clearly empowered the agency with authority over the issue.”

The fact that the 2022 statement plainly asserts vast authority to condemn a wide range of economically significant practices strengthens the already-strong case for condemning Section 5 competition rulemaking under this doctrine. Application of the doctrine would render moot the question of whether Section 6(g) rules would receive any Chevron deference. In any event, based on the 2022 Statement’s flouting of modern antitrust principles, including such core principles as consumer harm, efficiencies, and economic analysis, it appears unlikely that courts would accord such deference subsequent Section 6(g) rules. As Gus Hurwitz recently explained:

Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.

FTC Competition-Enforcement Authority

In addition to Section 6(g) competition-rulemaking initiatives, the 2022 statement, of course, aims to inform FTC Act Section 5(a) “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) enforcement actions. The FTC could bring a UMC suit before its own administrative tribunal or, in the alternative, seek to enjoin an alleged unfair method of competition in federal district court, pursuant to its authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The tenor of the 2022 statement undermines, rather than enhances, the likelihood that the FTC will succeed in “standalone Section 5(a)” lawsuits that challenge conduct falling beyond the boundaries of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.

In a June 2019 FTC report to Congress on using standalone Section 5 cases to combat high pharma prices, the FTC explained:

[C]ourts have confirmed that the unilateral exercise of lawfully acquired market power does not violate the antitrust laws. Therefore, the attempted use of standalone Section 5 to address high prices, untethered from accepted theories of antitrust liability under the Sherman Act, is unlikely to find success in the courts.

There have been no jurisprudential changes since 2019 to suggest that a UMC suit challenging the exploitation of lawfully obtained market power by raising prices is likely to find judicial favor. It follows, a fortiori (legalese that I seldom have the opportunity to trot out), that the more “far out” standalone suits implied by the statement’s analysis would likely generate embarrassing FTC judicial losses.

Applying three of the four principles assessed in the analysis of FTC competition rulemaking (the second principle, referring to statutory authority for rulemaking, is inapplicable), the negative influence of the statement on FTC litigation outcomes is laid bare.

First, as is the case with rules, the unconstrained laundry list of “unfair” business practices fails to produce an “intelligible principle” guiding the FTC’s exercise of enforcement discretion. As such, courts could well conclude that, if the statement is to be taken seriously, the non-delegation doctrine applies, and the FTC does not possess delegated UMC authority. Even if such authority were found to have been properly delegated, some courts might separately conclude, on due process grounds, that the UMC prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore cannot support an enforcement action. (While the “void for vagueness” doctrine is controversial, related attacks on statutes based on “impossibility of compliance” may have a more solid jurisprudential footing, particularly in the case of civil statutes (see here). The breadth and uncertainty of the statement’s references to disfavored conduct suggests “impossibility of compliance” as a possible alternative critique of novel Section 5 competition cases.) These concerns also apply equally to possible FTC Section 13(b) injunctive actions filed in federal district court.

Second, there is a not insubstantial risk that an appeals court would hold that a final Section 5 competition-enforcement decision by the Commission would be “arbitrary and capricious” if it dealt with behavior far outside the scope of the Sherman or Clayton Acts, based on vague policy pronouncements found in the 2022 statement.

Third, and of greatest risk to FTC litigation prospects, it is likely that appeals courts (and federal district courts in Section 13(b) injunction cases) would give no deference to new far-reaching non-antitrust-based theories alluded to in the statement. As discussed above, this could be based on invocation of the major questions doctrine or, separately, on the (likely) failure to accord Chevron deference to theories that are far removed from recognized antitrust causes of action under modern jurisprudence.

What Should the FTC Do About the Statement?

In sum, the startling breadth and absence of well-defined boundaries that plagues the statement’s discussion of potential Section 5 UMC violations means that the statement’s issuance materially worsens the FTC’s future litigation prospects—both in defending UMC rulemakings and in seeking to affirm case-specific Commission findings of UMC violations.

What, then, should the FTC do?

It should, put simply, withdraw the 2022 statement and craft a new UMC policy statement (NPS) that avoids the major pitfalls inherent in the statement. The NPS should carefully delineate the boundaries of standalone UMC rulemakings and cases, so as (1) to minimize uncertainty in application; and (2) to harmonize UMC actions with the pro-consumer welfare goal (as enunciated by the Supreme Court) of the antitrust laws. In drafting the NPS, the FTC would do well to be mindful of the part of Commissioner Wilson’s dissenting statement that highlights the deficiencies in the 2022 statement that detract from its persuasiveness to courts:

First, . . . the Policy Statement does not provide clear guidance to businesses seeking to comply with the law.

Second, the Policy Statement does not establish an approach for the term “unfair” in the competition context that matches the economic and analytical rigor that Commission policy offers for the same term, “unfair,” in the consumer protection context.

Third, the Policy Statement does not provide a framework that will result in credible enforcement. Instead, Commission actions will be subject to the vicissitudes of prevailing political winds.

Fourth, the Policy Statement does not address the legislative history that both demands economic content for the term “unfair” and cautions against an expansive approach to enforcing Section 5.

Consistent with avoiding these deficiencies, a new PS could carefully identify activities that are beyond the reach of the antitrust laws yet advance the procompetitive consumer-welfare-oriented goal that is the lodestar of antitrust policy. The NPS should also be issued for public comment (as recommended by Commissioner Wilson), an action that could give it additional “due process luster” in the eyes of federal judges.

More specifically, the NPS could state that standalone UMC actions should be directed at private conduct that undermines the competitive process, but is not subject to the reach of the antitrust laws (say, because of the absence of contracts). Such actions might include, for example: (1) invitations to collude; (2)  facilitating practices (“activities that tend to promote interdependence by reducing rivals’ uncertainty or diminishing incentives to deviate from a coordinated strategy”—see here); (3) exchanges of competitively sensitive information among competitors that do not qualify as Sherman Act “agreements” (see here); and (4) materially deceptive conduct (lacking efficiency justifications) that likely contributes to obtaining or increasing market power, as in the standard-setting context (see here); and (5) non-compete clauses in labor employment agreements that lack plausible efficiency justifications (say, clauses in contracts made with low-skill, low-salary workers) or otherwise plainly undermine labor-market competition (say, clauses presented to workers only after they have signed an initial contract, creating a “take-it-or-leave-it scenario” based on asymmetric information).

After promulgating a list of examples, the NPS could explain that additional possible standalone UMC actions would be subject to the same philosophical guardrails: They would involve conduct inconsistent with competition on the merits that is likely to harm consumers and that lacks strong efficiency justifications. 

A revised NPS along the lines suggested would raise the probability of successful UMC judicial outcomes for the Commission. It would do this by strengthening the FTC’s arguments that there is an intelligible principle underlying congressional delegation; that specificity of notice is sufficient to satisfy due process (arbitrariness and capriciousness) concerns; that the Section 5 delegation is insufficiently broad to trigger the major questions doctrine; and that Chevron deference may be accorded determinations stemming from precise NPS guidance.     

In the case of rules, of course, the FTC would still face the substantial risk that a court would deem that Section 6(g) does not apply to substantive rulemakings. And it is far from clear to what extent an NPS along the lines suggested would lead courts to render more FTC-favorable rulings on non-delegation, due process, the major questions doctrine, and Chevron deference. Moreover, even if they entertained UMC suits, the courts could, of course, determine in individual cases that, on the facts, the Commission had failed to show a legal violation. (The FTC has never litigated invitation-to-collude cases, and it lost a variety of facilitating practices cases during the 1980s and 1990s; see here).

Nonetheless, if I were advising the FTC as general counsel, I would tell the commissioners that the choice is between having close to a zero chance of litigation or rulemaking success under the 2022 statement, and some chance of success (greater in the case of litigation than in rulemaking) under the NPS.

Conclusion

The FTC faces a future of total UMC litigation futility if it plows ahead under the 2022 statement. Promulgating an NPS as described would give the FTC at least some chance of success in litigating cases beyond the legal limits of the antitrust laws, assuming suggested principles and guardrails were honored. The outlook for UMC rulemaking (which turns primarily on how the courts view the structure of the FTC Act) remains rather dim, even under a carefully crafted NPS.

If the FTC decides against withdrawing the 2022 statement, it could still show some wisdom by directing more resources to competition advocacy and challenging clearly anticompetitive conduct that falls within the accepted boundaries of the antitrust laws. (Indeed, to my mind, error-cost considerations suggest that the Commission should eschew UMC causes of action that do not also constitute clear antitrust offenses.) It need not undertake almost sure-to-fail UMC initiatives just because it has published the 2022 statement.

In short, treating the 2022 statement as a purely symbolic vehicle to showcase the FTC’s fondest desires—like a new, never-to-be-driven Lamborghini that merely sits in the driveway to win the admiring glances of neighbors—could well be the optimal Commission strategy, given the zeitgeist. That assumes, of course, that the FTC cares about protecting its institutional future and (we also hope) promoting economic well-being.

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

When Congress created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914, it charged the agency with condemning “unfair methods of competition.” That’s not the language Congress used in writing America’s primary antitrust statute, the Sherman Act, which prohibits “monopoliz[ation]” and “restraint[s] of trade.”

Ever since, the question has lingered whether the FTC has the authority to go beyond the Sherman Act to condemn conduct that is unfair, but not necessarily monopolizing or trade-restraining.

According to a new policy statement, the FTC’s current leadership seems to think that the answer is “yes.” But the peculiar strand of progressivism that is currently running the agency lacks the intellectual foundation needed to tell us what conduct that is unfair but not monopolizing might actually be—and misses an opportunity to bring about an expansion of its powers that courts might actually accept.

Better to Keep the Rule of Reason but Eliminate the Monopoly-Power Requirement

The FTC’s policy statement reads like a thesaurus. What is unfair competition? Answer: conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power of a similar nature.”

In other words: the FTC has no idea. Presumably, the agency thinks, like Justice Potter Stewart did of obscenity, it will know it when it sees it. Given the courts’ long history of humiliating the FTC by rejecting its cases, even when the agency is able to provide a highly developed account of why challenged conduct is bad for America, one shudders to think of the reception such an approach to fairness will receive.

The one really determinate proposal in the policy statement is to attack bad conduct regardless whether the defendant has monopoly power. “Section 5 does not require a separate showing of market power or market definition when the evidence indicates that such conduct tends to negatively affect competitive conditions,” writes the FTC.

If only the agency had proposed this change alone, instead of cracking open the thesaurus to try to redefine bad conduct as well. Dropping the monopoly-power requirement would, by itself, greatly increase the amount of conduct subject to the FTC’s writ without forcing the agency to answer the metaphysical question: what is fair?

Under the present rule-of-reason approach, the courts let consumers answer the question of what constitutes bad conduct. Or to be precise, the courts assume that the only thing consumers care about is the product—its quality and price—and they try to guess whether consumers prefer the changes that the defendant’s conduct had on products in the market. If a court thinks consumers don’t prefer the changes, then the court condemns the conduct. But only if the defendant happens to have monopoly power in the market for those products.

Preserving this approach to identifying bad conduct would let the courts continue to maintain the pretense that they are doing the bidding of consumers—a role they will no doubt prefer to deciding what is fair as an absolute matter.

The FTC can safely discard the monopoly-power requirement without disturbing the current test for bad conduct because—as I argue in a working paper and as Timothy J. Brennen has long insisted—the monopoly-power requirement is directed at the wrong level of the supply chain: the market in which the defendant has harmed competition rather than the input market through which the defendant causes harm.

Power, not just in markets but in all social life, is rooted in one thing only: control over what others need. Harm to competition depends not on how much a defendant can produce relative to competitors but on whether a defendant controls an input that competitors need, but which the defendant can deny to them.

What others need, they do not buy from the market for which they produce. They buy what they need from other markets: input markets. It follows that the only power that should matter for antitrust—the only power that determines whether a firm can harm competition—is power over input markets, not power in the market in which competition is harmed.

And yet, apart from vertical-merger and contracting cases, where an inquiry into foreclosure of inputs still occasionally makes an appearance, antitrust today never requires systematic proof of power in input markets. The efforts of economists are wasted on the proof of power at the wrong level of the supply chain.

That represents an opportunity for the FTC, which can at one stroke greatly expand its authority to encompass conduct by firms having little power in the markets in which they harm competition.

To be sure, really getting the rule of reason right would require that proof of monopoly power continue to be required, only now at the input level instead of in the downstream market in which competition is harmed. But the courts have traditionally required only informal proof of power over inputs. The FTC could probably eliminate the economics-intensive process of formal proof of monopoly power entirely, instead of merely kicking it up one level in the supply chain.

That is surely an added plus for a current leadership so fearful of computation that it was at pains in the policy statement specifically to forswear “numerical” cost-benefit analysis.

Whatever Happened to No Fault?  

The FTC’s interest in expanding enforcement by throwing off the monopoly-power requirement is a marked departure from progressive antimonopolisms of the past. Mid-20th century radicals did not attack the monopoly-power side of antitrust’s two-part test, but rather the anticompetitive-conduct side.

For more than two decades, progressives mooted establishing a “no-fault” monopolization regime in which the only requirement for liability was size. By contrast, the present movement has sought to focus on conduct, rather than size, its own anti-concentration rhetoric notwithstanding.

Anti-Economism

That might, in part, be a result of the movement’s hostility toward economics. Proof of monopoly power is a famously economics-heavy undertaking.

The origin of contemporary antimonopolism is in activism by journalists against the social-media companies that are outcompeting newspapers for ad revenue, not in academia. As a result, the best traditions of the left, which involve intellectually outflanking opponents by showing how economic theory supports progressive positions, are missing here.

Contemporary antimonopolism has no “Capital” (Karl Marx), no “Progress and Poverty” (Henry George), and no “Freedom through Law” (Robert Hale). The most recent installment in this tradition of left-wing intellectual accomplishment is “Capital in the 21st Century” (Thomas Piketty). Unfortunately for progressive antimonopolists, it states: “pure and perfect competition cannot alter . . . inequality[.]’”

The contrast with the last revolution to sweep antitrust—that of the Chicago School—could not be starker. That movement was born in academia and its triumph was a triumph of ideas, however flawed they may in fact have been.

If one wishes to understand how Chicago School thinking put an end to the push for “no-fault” monopolization, one reads the Airlie House conference volume. In the conversations reproduced therein, one finds the no-faulters slowly being won over by the weight of data and theory deployed against them in support of size.

No equivalent watershed moment exists for contemporary antimonopolism, which bypassed academia (including the many progressive scholars doing excellent work therein) and went straight to the press and the agencies.

There is an ongoing debate about whether recent increases in markups result from monopolization or scarcity. It has not been resolved.

Rather than occupy economics, contemporary antimonopolists—and, perhaps, current FTC leadership—recoil from it. As one prominent antimonopolist lamented to a New York Times reporter, merger cases should be a matter of counting to four, and “[w]e don’t need economists to help us count to four.”

As the policy statement puts it: “The unfair methods of competition framework explicitly contemplates a variety of non-quantifiable harms, and justifications and purported benefits may be unquantifiable as well.”

Moralism

Contemporary antimonopolism’s focus on conduct might also be due to moralism—as reflected in the litany of synonyms for “bad” in the FTC’s policy statement.

For earlier progressives, antitrust was largely a means to an end—a way of ensuring that wages were high, consumer prices were low, and products were safe and of good quality. The fate of individual business entities within markets was of little concern, so long as these outcomes could be achieved.

What mattered were people. While contemporary antimonopolism cares about people, too, it differs from earlier antimonopolisms in that it personifies the firm.

If the firm dies, we are to be sad. If the firm is treated roughly by others, starved of resources or denied room to grow and reach its full potential, we are to be outraged, just as we would be if a child were starved. And, just as in the case of a child, we are to be outraged even if the firm would not have grown up to contribute anything of worth to society.

The irony, apparently lost on antimonopolists, is that the same personification of the firm as a rights-bearing agent, operating in other areas of law, undermines progressive policies.

The firm personified not only has a right to be treated gently by competing firms but also to be treated well by other people. But that means that people no longer come first relative to firms. When the Supreme Court holds that a business firm has a First Amendment right to influence politics, the Court takes personification of the firm to its logical extreme.

The alternative is not to make the market a morality play among firms, but to focus instead on market outcomes that matter to people—wages, prices, and product quality. We should not care whether a firm is “coerc[ed], exploitat[ed], collu[ded against], abus[ed], dece[ived], predate[ed], or [subjected to] economic power of a similar nature” except insofar as such treatment fails to serve people.

If one firm wishes to hire away the talent of another, for example, depriving the target of its lifeblood and killing it, so much the better if the result is better products, lower prices, or higher wages.

Antitrust can help maintain this focus on people only in part—by stopping unfair conduct that degrades products. I have argued elsewhere that the rest is for price regulation, taxation, and direct regulation to undertake.  

Can We Be Fairer and Still Give Product-Improving Conduct a Pass?

The intellectual deficit in contemporary antimonopolism is also evident in the care that the FTC’s policy statement puts into exempting behavior that creates superior products.

For one cannot expand the FTC’s powers to reach bad conduct without condemning product-improving conduct when the major check on enforcement today under the rule of reason (apart from the monopoly-power requirement) is precisely that conduct that improves products is exempt.

Under the rule of reason, bad conduct is a denial of inputs to a competitor that does not help consumers, meaning that the denial degrades the competitor’s products without improving the defendant’s products. Bad conduct is, in other words, unfairness that does not improve products.

If the FTC’s goal is to increase fairness relative to a regime that already pursues it, except when unfairness improves products, the additional fairness must come at the cost of product improvement.

The reference to superior products in the policy statement may be an attempt to compromise with the rule of reason. Unlike the elimination of the monopoly-power requirement, it is not a coherent compromise.

The FTC doesn’t need an economist to grasp this either.  

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan has just sent her holiday wishlist to Santa Claus. It comes in the form of a policy statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) that the FTC approved last week by a 3-1 vote. If there’s anything to be gleaned from the document, it’s that Khan and the agency’s majority bloc wish they could wield the same powers as Margrethe Vestager does in the European Union. Luckily for consumers, U.S. courts are unlikely to oblige.

Signed by the commission’s three Democratic commissioners, the UMC policy statement contains language that would be completely at home in a decision of the European Commission. It purports to reorient UMC enforcement (under Section 5 of the FTC Act) around typically European concepts, such as “competition on the merits.” This is an unambiguous repudiation of the rule of reason and, with it, the consumer welfare standard.

Unfortunately for its authors, these European-inspired aspirations are likely to fall flat. For a start, the FTC almost certainly does not have the power to enact such sweeping changes. More fundamentally, these concepts have been tried in the EU, where they have proven to be largely unworkable. On the one hand, critics (including the European judiciary) have excoriated the European Commission for its often economically unsound policymaking—enabled by the use of vague standards like “competition on the merits.” On the other hand, the Commission paradoxically believes that its competition powers are insufficient, creating the need for even stronger powers. The recently passed Digital Markets Act (DMA) is designed to fill this need.

As explained below, there is thus every reason to believe the FTC’s UMC statement will ultimately go down as a mistake, brought about by the current leadership’s hubris.

A Statement Is Just That

The first big obstacle to the FTC’s lofty ambitions is that its leadership does not have the power to rewrite either the FTC Act or courts’ interpretation of it. The agency’s leadership understands this much. And with that in mind, they ostensibly couch their statement in the case law of the U.S. Supreme Court:

Consistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the FTC Act in at least twelve decisions, this statement makes clear that Section 5 reaches beyond the Sherman and Clayton Acts to encompass various types of unfair conduct that tend to negatively affect competitive conditions.

It is telling, however, that the cases cited by the agency—in a naked attempt to do away with economic analysis and the consumer welfare standard—are all at least 40 years old. Antitrust and consumer-protection laws have obviously come a long way since then, but none of that is mentioned in the statement. Inconvenient case law is simply shrugged off. To make matters worse, even the cases the FTC cites provide, at best, exceedingly weak support for its proposed policy.

For instance, as Commissioner Christine Wilson aptly notes in her dissenting statement, “the policy statement ignores precedent regarding the need to demonstrate anticompetitive effects.” Chief among these is the Boise Cascade Corp. v. FTC case, where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the FTC for failing to show actual anticompetitive effects:

In truth, the Commission has provided us with little more than a theory of the likely effect of the challenged pricing practices. While this general observation perhaps summarizes all that follows, we offer  the following specific points in support of our conclusion.

There is a complete absence of meaningful evidence in the record that price levels in the southern plywood industry reflect an anticompetitive effect.

In short, the FTC’s statement is just that—a statement. Gus Hurwitz summarized this best in his post:

Today’s news that the FTC has adopted a new UMC Policy Statement is just that: mere news. It doesn’t change the law. It is non-precedential and lacks the force of law. It receives the benefit of no deference. It is, to use a term from the consumer-protection lexicon, mere puffery.

Lina’s European Dream

But let us imagine, for a moment, that the FTC has its way and courts go along with its policy statement. Would this be good for the American consumer? In order to answer this question, it is worth looking at competition enforcement in the European Union.

There are, indeed, striking similarities between the FTC’s policy statement and European competition law. Consider the resemblance between the following quotes, drawn from the FTC’s policy statement (“A” in each example) and from the European competition sphere (“B” in each example).

Example 1 – Competition on the merits and the protection of competitors:

A. The method of competition must be unfair, meaning that the conduct goes beyond competition on the merits.… This may include, for example, conduct that tends to foreclose or impair the opportunities of market participants, reduce competition between rivals, limit choice, or otherwise harm consumers. (here)

B. The emphasis of the Commission’s enforcement activity… is on safeguarding the competitive process… and ensuring that undertakings which hold a dominant position do not exclude their competitors by other means than competing on the merits… (here)

Example 2 – Proof of anticompetitive harm:

A. “Unfair methods of competition” need not require a showing of current anticompetitive harm or anticompetitive intent in every case. … [T]his inquiry does not turn to whether the conduct directly caused actual harm in the specific instance at issue. (here)

B. The Commission cannot be required… systematically to establish a counterfactual scenario…. That would, moreover, oblige it to demonstrate that the conduct at issue had actual effects, which…  is not required in the case of an abuse of a dominant position, where it is sufficient to establish that there are potential effects. (here)

    Example 3 – Multiple goals:

    A. Given the distinctive goals of Section 5, the inquiry will not focus on the “rule of reason” inquiries more common in cases under the Sherman Act, but will instead focus on stopping unfair methods of competition in their incipiency based on their tendency to harm competitive conditions. (here)

    B. In its assessment the Commission should pursue the objectives of preserving and fostering innovation and the quality of digital products and services, the degree to which prices are fair and competitive, and the degree to which quality or choice for business users and for end users is or remains high. (here)

    Beyond their cosmetic resemblances, these examples reflect a deeper similarity. The FTC is attempting to introduce three core principles that also undergird European competition enforcement. The first is that enforcers should protect “the competitive process” by ensuring firms compete “on the merits,” rather than a more consequentialist goal like the consumer welfare standard (which essentially asks how a given practice affects economic output). The second is that enforcers should not be required to establish that conduct actually harms consumers. Instead, they need only show that such an outcome is (or will be) possible. The third principle is that competition policies pursue multiple, sometimes conflicting, goals.

    In short, the FTC is trying to roll back U.S. enforcement to a bygone era predating the emergence of the consumer welfare standard (which is somewhat ironic for the agency’s progressive leaders). And this vision of enforcement is infused with elements that appear to be drawn directly from European competition law.

    Europe Is Not the Land of Milk and Honey

    All of this might not be so problematic if the European model of competition enforcement that the FTC now seeks to emulate was an unmitigated success, but that could not be further from the truth. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman, and I argued in a recently published paper, the European model has several shortcomings that militate against emulating it (the following quotes are drawn from that paper). These problems would almost certainly arise if the FTC’s statement was blessed by courts in the United States.

    For a start, the more open-ended nature of European competition law makes it highly vulnerable to political interference. This is notably due to its multiple, vague, and often conflicting goals, such as the protection of the “competitive process”:

    Because EU regulators can call upon a large list of justifications for their enforcement decisions, they are free to pursue cases that best fit within a political agenda, rather than focusing on the limited practices that are most injurious to consumers. In other words, there is largely no definable set of metrics to distinguish strong cases from weak ones under the EU model; what stands in its place is political discretion.

    Politicized antitrust enforcement might seem like a great idea when your party is in power but, as Milton Friedman wisely observed, the mark of a strong system of government is that it operates well with the wrong person in charge. With this in mind, the FTC’s current leadership would do well to consider what their political opponents might do with these broad powers—such as using Section 5 to prevent online platforms from moderating speech.

    A second important problem with the European model is that, because of its competitive-process goal, it does not adequately distinguish between exclusion resulting from superior efficiency and anticompetitive foreclosure:

    By pursuing a competitive process goal, European competition authorities regularly conflate desirable and undesirable forms of exclusion precisely on the basis of their effect on competitors. As a result, the Commission routinely sanctions exclusion that stems from an incumbent’s superior efficiency rather than welfare-reducing strategic behavior, and routinely protects inefficient competitors that would otherwise rightly be excluded from a market.

    This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, leading to risks of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms, while increasing compliance costs because of reduced legal certainty. Ultimately, this may hamper technological evolution and protect inefficient firms whose eviction from the market is merely a reflection of consumer preferences.

    Finally, the European model results in enforcers having more discretion and enjoying greater deference from the courts:

    [T]he EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent, and sometimes mutually exclusive, goals.… [A] large problem exists in the discretion that this fluid arrangement of goals yields.

    The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the Commission could have chosen to base its decision on a number of potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice”. The Commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains because “consumer choice” among a variety of media players was more important.

    In short, the European model sorely lacks limiting principles. This likely explains why the European Court of Justice has started to pare back the commission’s powers in a series of recent cases, including Intel, Post Danmark, Cartes Bancaires, and Servizio Elettrico Nazionale. These rulings appear to be an explicit recognition that overly broad competition enforcement not only fails to benefit consumers but, more fundamentally, is incompatible with the rule of law.

    It is unfortunate that the FTC is trying to emulate a model of competition enforcement that—even in the progressively minded European public sphere—is increasingly questioned and cast aside as a result of its multiple shortcomings.

    [This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

    The current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears to have one overarching goal: find more ways to sue companies. The three Democratic commissioners (with the one Republican dissenting) issued a new policy statement earlier today that brings long-abandoned powers back into the FTC’s toolkit. Under Chair Lina Khan’s leadership, the FTC wants to bring challenges against “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” If that sounds extremely vague, that’s because it is. 

    For the past few decades, antitrust violations have fallen into two categories. Actions like price-fixing with competitors are assumed to be illegal. Other actions are only considered illegal if they are proven to sufficiently restrain trade. This latter approach is called the “rule of reason.”

    The FTC now wants to return to a time when they could also challenge conduct it viewed as unfair. The policy statement says the commission will go after behavior that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” Who could argue against stopping coercive behavior? The problem is what it means in practice for actual antitrust cases. No one knows: businesses or courts. It’s up to the whims of the FTC.

    This is how antitrust used to be. In 1984, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals admonished the FTC and argued that “the Commission owes a duty to define the conditions under which conduct … would be unfair so that businesses will have an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.” Fairness, as the Clayton Act puts forward, proved unworkable as an antitrust standard.

    The FTC’s movement to clarify what “unfair” means led to a 2015 policy statement, which the new statement supersedes. In the 2015 statement, the Obama-era FTC, with bipartisan support, issued new rules laying out what would qualify as unfair methods of competition. In doing so, they rolled “unfair methods” under the rule of reason. The consequences of the action matter.

    The 2015 statement is part of a longer-run trend of incorporating more economic analysis into antitrust. For the past few decades, courts have followed in antitrust law is called the “consumer welfare standard.”  The basic idea is that the goal of antitrust decisions should be to choose whatever outcome helps consumers, or as economists would put it, whatever increases “consumer welfare.” Once those are the terms of the dispute, economic analysis can help the courts sort out whether an action is anticompetitive.

    Beyond helping to settle particular cases, these features of modern antitrust—like the consumer welfare standard and the rule of reason—give market participants some sense of what is illegal and what is not. That’s necessary for the rule of law to prevail and for markets to function.

    The new FTC rules explicitly reject any appeal to consumer benefits or welfare. Efficiency gains from the action—labeled “pecuniary gains” to suggest they are merely about money—do not count as a defense. The FTC makes explicit that parties cannot justify behavior based on efficiencies or cost-benefit analysis.

    Instead, as Commissioner Christine S. Wilson points out in her dissent, “the Policy Statement adopts an ‘I know it when I see it’ approach premised on a list of nefarious-sounding adjectives.” If the FTC claims some conduct is unfair, why worry about studying the consequences of the conduct?

    The policy statement is an attempt to roll back the clock on antitrust and return to the incoherence of 1950s and 1960s antitrust. The FTC seeks to protect other companies, not competition or consumers. As Khan herself said, “for a lot of businesses it comes down to whether they’re going to be able to sink or swim.”

    But President Joe Biden’s antitrust enforcers have struggled to win traditional antitrust cases. On mergers, for example, they have challenged a smaller percentage of mergers and were less successful than the FTC and DOJ under President Donald Trump.

    Faithful and even occasional readers of this roundup might have noticed a certain temporal discontinuity between the last post and this one. The inimitable Gus Hurwitz has passed the scrivener’s pen to me, a recent refugee from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the roundup is back in business. Any errors going forward are mine. Going back, blame Gus.

    Commissioner Noah Phillips departed the FTC last Friday, leaving the Commission down a much-needed advocate for consumer welfare and the antitrust laws as they are, if not as some wish they were. I recommend the reflections posted by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson and my fellow former FTC Attorney Advisor Alex Okuliar. Phillips collaborated with his fellow commissioners on matters grounded in the law and evidence, but he wasn’t shy about crying frolic and detour when appropriate.

    The FTC without Noah is a lesser place. Still, while it’s not always obvious, many able people remain at the Commission and some good solid work continues. For example, FTC staff filed comments urging New York State to reject a Certificate of Public Advantage (“COPA”) application submitted by SUNY Upstate Health System and Crouse Medical. The staff’s thorough comments reflect investigation of the proposed merger, recent research, and the FTC’s long experience with COPAs. In brief, the staff identified anticompetitive rent-seeking for what it is. Antitrust exemptions for health-care providers tend to make health care worse, but more expensive. Which is a corollary to the evergreen truth that antitrust exemptions help the special interests receiving them but not a living soul besides those special interests. That’s it, full stop.

    More Good News from the Commission

    On Sept. 30, a unanimous Commission announced that an independent physician association in New Mexico had settled allegations that it violated a 2005 consent order. The allegations? Roughly 400 physicians—independent competitors—had engaged in price fixing, violating both the 2005 order and the Sherman Act. As the concurring statement of Commissioners Phillips and Wilson put it, the new order “will prevent a group of doctors from allegedly getting together to negotiate… higher incomes for themselves and higher costs for their patients.” Oddly, some have chastised the FTC for bringing the action as anti-labor. But the IPA is a regional “must-have” for health plans and a dominant provider to consumers, including patients, who might face tighter budget constraints than the median physician

    Peering over the rims of the rose-colored glasses, my gaze turns to Meta. In July, the FTC sued to block Meta’s proposed acquisition of Within Unlimited (and its virtual-reality exercise app, Supernatural). Gus wrote about it with wonder, noting reports that the staff had recommended against filing, only to be overruled by the chair.

    Now comes October and an amended complaint. The amended complaint is even weaker than the opening salvo. Now, the FTC alleges that the acquisition would eliminate potential competition from Meta in a narrower market, VR-dedicated fitness apps, by “eliminating any probability that Meta would enter the market through alternative means absent the Proposed Acquisition, as well as eliminating the likely and actual beneficial influence on existing competition that results from Meta’s current position, poised on the edge of the market.”

    So what if Meta were to abandon the deal—as the FTC wants—but not enter on its own? Same effect, but the FTC cannot seriously suggest that Meta has a positive duty to enter the market. Is there a jurisdiction (or a planet) where a decision to delay or abandon entry would be unlawful unilateral conduct? Suppose instead that Meta enters, with virtual-exercise guns blazing, much to the consternation of firms actually in the market, which might complain about it. Then what? Would the Commission cheer or would it allege harm to nascent competition, or perhaps a novel vertical theory? And by the way, how poised is Meta, given no competing product in late-stage development? Would the FTC prefer that Meta buy a different competitor? Should the overworked staff commence Meta’s due diligence?

    Potential competition cases are viable given the right facts, and in areas where good grounds to predict significant entry are well-established. But this is a nascent market in a large, highly dynamic, and innovative industry. The competitive landscape a few years down the road is anyone’s guess. More speculation: the staff was right all along. For more, see Dirk Auer’s or Geoffrey Manne’s threads on the amended complaint.

    When It Rains It Pours Regulations

    On Aug. 22, the FTC published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to consider the potential regulation of “commercial surveillance and data security” under its Section 18 authority. Shortly thereafter, they announced an Oct. 20 open meeting with three more ANPRs on the agenda.

    First, on the advance notice: I’m not sure what they mean by “commercial surveillance.” The term doesn’t appear in statutory law, or in prior FTC enforcement actions. It sounds sinister and, surely, it’s an intentional nod to Shoshana Zuboff’s anti-tech polemic “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” One thing is plain enough: the proffered definition is as dramatically sweeping as it is hopelessly vague. The Commission seems to be contemplating a general data regulation of some sort, but we don’t know what sort. They don’t say or even sketch a possible rule. That’s a problem for the FTC, because the law demands that the Commission state its regulatory objectives, along with regulatory alternatives under consideration, in the ANPR itself. If they get to an NPRM, they are required to describe a proposed rule with specificity.

    What’s clear is that the ANPR takes a dim view of much of the digital economy. And while the Commission has considerable experience in certain sorts of privacy and data security matters, the ANPR hints at a project extending well past that experience. Commissioners Phillips and Wilson dissented for good and overlapping reasons. Here’s a bit from the Phillips dissent:

    When adopting regulations, clarity is a virtue. But the only thing clear in the ANPR is a rather dystopic view of modern commerce….I cannot support an ANPR that is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate….It’s a naked power grab.

    Be sure to read the bonus material in the Federal Register—supporting statements from Chair Lina Khan and Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, and dissenting statements from Commissioners Phillips and Wilson. Chair Khan breezily states that “the questions we ask in the ANPR and the rules we are empowered to issue may be consequential, but they do not implicate the ‘major questions doctrine.’” She’s probably half right: the questions do not violate the Constitution. But she’s probably half wrong too.

    For more, see ICLE’s Oct. 20 panel discussion and the executive summary to our forthcoming comments to the Commission.

    But wait, there’s more! There were three additional ANPRs on the Commission’s Oct. 20 agenda. So that’s four and counting. Will there be a proposed rule on non-competes? Gig workers? Stay tuned. For now, note that rules are not self-enforcing, and that the chair has testified to Congress that the Commission is strapped for resources and struggling to keep up with its statutory mission. Are more regulations an odd way to ask Congress for money? Thus far, there’s no proposed rule on gig workers, but there was a Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Workers.. For more on that story, see Alden Abbott’s TOTM post.

    Laws, Like People, Have Their Limits

    Read Phillips’s parting dissent in Passport Auto Group, where the Commission combined legitimate allegations with an unhealthy dose of overreach:

    The language of the unfairness standard has given the FTC the flexibility to combat new threats to consumers that accompany the development of new industries and technologies. Still, there are limits to the Commission’s unfairness authority. Because this complaint includes an unfairness count that aims to transform Section 5 into an undefined discrimination statute, I respectfully dissent.”

    Right. Three cheers for effective enforcement of the focused antidiscrimination laws enacted by Congress by the agencies actually charged to enforce those laws. And to equal protection. And three more, at least, for a little regulatory humility, if we find it.

    This post is the third in a three-part series. The first installment can be found here and the second can be found here.

    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.

    Conclusion

    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.

    The practice of so-called “self-preferencing” has come to embody the zeitgeist of competition policy for digital markets, as legislative initiatives are undertaken in jurisdictions around the world that to seek, in various ways, to constrain large digital platforms from granting favorable treatment to their own goods and services. The core concern cited by policymakers is that gatekeepers may abuse their dual role—as both an intermediary and a trader operating on the platform—to pursue a strategy of biased intermediation that entrenches their power in core markets (defensive leveraging) and extends it to associated markets (offensive leveraging).

    In addition to active interventions by lawmakers, self-preferencing has also emerged as a new theory of harm before European courts and antitrust authorities. Should antitrust enforcers be allowed to pursue such a theory, they would gain significant leeway to bypass the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove that a given business practice is anticompetitive. This should be of particular concern, given the broad range of practices and types of exclusionary behavior that could be characterized as self-preferencing—only some of which may, in some specific contexts, include exploitative or anticompetitive elements.

    In a new working paper for the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), I provide an overview of the relevant traditional antitrust theories of harm, as well as the emerging case law, to analyze whether and to what extent self-preferencing should be considered a new standalone offense under EU competition law. The experience to date in European case law suggests that courts have been able to address platforms’ self-preferencing practices under existing theories of harm, and that it may not be sufficiently novel to constitute a standalone theory of harm.

    European Case Law on Self-Preferencing

    Practices by digital platforms that might be deemed self-preferencing first garnered significant attention from European competition enforcers with the European Commission’s Google Shopping investigation, which examined whether the search engine’s results pages positioned and displayed its own comparison-shopping service more favorably than the websites of rival comparison-shopping services. According to the Commission’s findings, Google’s conduct fell outside the scope of competition on the merits and could have the effect of extending Google’s dominant position in the national markets for general Internet search into adjacent national markets for comparison-shopping services, in addition to protecting Google’s dominance in its core search market.

    Rather than explicitly posit that self-preferencing (a term the Commission did not use) constituted a new theory of harm, the Google Shopping ruling described the conduct as belonging to the well-known category of “leveraging.” The Commission therefore did not need to propagate a new legal test, as it held that the conduct fell under a well-established form of abuse. The case did, however, spur debate over whether the legal tests the Commission did apply effectively imposed on Google a principle of equal treatment of rival comparison-shopping services.

    But it should be noted that conduct similar to that alleged in the Google Shopping investigation actually came before the High Court of England and Wales several months earlier, this time in a dispute between Google and Streetmap. At issue in that case was favorable search results Google granted to its own maps, rather than to competing online maps. The UK Court held, however, that the complaint should have been appropriately characterized as an allegation of discrimination; it further found that Google’s conduct did not constitute anticompetitive foreclosure. A similar result was reached in May 2020 by the Amsterdam Court of Appeal in the Funda case.  

    Conversely, in June 2021, the French Competition Authority (AdlC) followed the European Commission into investigating Google’s practices in the digital-advertising sector. Like the Commission, the AdlC did not explicitly refer to self-preferencing, instead describing the conduct as “favoring.”

    Given this background and the proliferation of approaches taken by courts and enforcers to address similar conduct, there was significant anticipation for the judgment that the European General Court would ultimately render in the appeal of the Google Shopping ruling. While the General Court upheld the Commission’s decision, it framed self-preferencing as a discriminatory abuse. Further, the Court outlined four criteria that differentiated Google’s self-preferencing from competition on the merits.

    Specifically, the Court highlighted the “universal vocation” of Google’s search engine—that it is open to all users and designed to index results containing any possible content; the “superdominant” position that Google holds in the market for general Internet search; the high barriers to entry in the market for general search services; and what the Court deemed Google’s “abnormal” conduct—behaving in a way that defied expectations, given a search engine’s business model, and that changed after the company launched its comparison-shopping service.

    While the precise contours of what the Court might consider discriminatory abuse aren’t yet clear, the decision’s listed criteria appear to be narrow in scope. This stands at odds with the much broader application of self-preferencing as a standalone abuse, both by the European Commission itself and by some national competition authorities (NCAs).

    Indeed, just a few weeks after the General Court’s ruling, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) handed down a mammoth fine against Amazon over preferential treatment granted to third-party sellers who use the company’s own logistics and delivery services. Rather than reflecting the qualified set of criteria laid out by the General Court, the Italian decision was clearly inspired by the Commission’s approach in Google Shopping. Where the Commission described self-preferencing as a new form of leveraging abuse, AGCM characterized Amazon’s practices as tying.

    Self-preferencing has also been raised as a potential abuse in the context of data and information practices. In November 2020, the European Commission sent Amazon a statement of objections detailing its preliminary view that the company had infringed antitrust rules by making systematic use of non-public business data, gathered from independent retailers who sell on Amazon’s marketplace, to advantage the company’s own retail business. (Amazon responded with a set of commitments currently under review by the Commission.)

    Both the Commission and the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority have lodged similar allegations against Facebook over data gathered from advertisers and then used to compete with those advertisers in markets in which Facebook is active, such as classified ads. The Commission’s antitrust proceeding against Apple over its App Store rules likewise highlights concerns that the company may use its platform position to obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors, while competing developers may be denied access to important customer data.

    These enforcement actions brought by NCAs and the Commission appear at odds with the more bounded criteria set out by the General Court in Google Shopping, and raise tremendous uncertainty regarding the scope and definition of the alleged new theory of harm.

    Self-Preferencing, Platform Neutrality, and the Limits of Antitrust Law

    The growing tendency to invoke self-preferencing as a standalone theory of antitrust harm could serve two significant goals for European competition enforcers. As mentioned earlier, it offers a convenient shortcut that could allow enforcers to skip the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove anticompetitive behavior. Moreover, it can function, in practice, as a means to impose a neutrality regime on digital gatekeepers, with the aims of both ensuring a level playing field among competitors and neutralizing the potential conflicts of interests implicated by dual-mode intermediation.

    The dual roles performed by some platforms continue to fuel the never-ending debate over vertical integration, as well as related concerns that, by giving preferential treatment to its own products and services, an integrated provider may leverage its dominance in one market to related markets. From this perspective, self-preferencing is an inevitable byproduct of the emergence of ecosystems.

    However, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has recognized, self-preferencing conduct is “often benign.” Furthermore, the total value generated by an ecosystem depends on the activities of independent complementors. Those activities are not completely under the platform’s control, although the platform is required to establish and maintain the governance structures regulating access to and interactions around that ecosystem.

    Given this reality, a complete ban on self-preferencing may call the very existence of ecosystems into question, challenging their design and monetization strategies. Preferential treatment can take many different forms with many different potential effects, all stemming from platforms’ many different business models. This counsels for a differentiated, case-by-case, and effects-based approach to assessing the alleged competitive harms of self-preferencing.

    Antitrust law does not impose on platforms a general duty to ensure neutrality by sharing their competitive advantages with rivals. Moreover, possessing a competitive advantage does not automatically equal an anticompetitive effect. As the European Court of Justice recently stated in Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, competition law is not intended to protect the competitive structure of the market, but rather to protect consumer welfare. Accordingly, not every exclusionary effect is detrimental to competition. Distinctions must be drawn between foreclosure and anticompetitive foreclosure, as only the latter may be penalized under antitrust.

    Slow wage growth and rising inequality over the past few decades have pushed economists more and more toward the study of monopsony power—particularly firms’ monopsony power over workers. Antitrust policy has taken notice. For example, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) initiated the process of updating their merger guidelines, their request for information included questions about how they should respond to monopsony concerns, as distinct from monopoly concerns. ​

    From a pure economic-theory perspective, there is no important distinction between monopsony power and monopoly power. If Armen is trading his apples in exchange for Ben’s bananas, we can call Armen the seller of apples or the buyer of bananas. The labels (buyer and seller) are kind of arbitrary. It doesn’t matter as a pure theory matter. Monopsony and monopoly are just mirrored images.

    Some infer from this monopoly-monopsony symmetry, however, that extending antitrust to monopsony power will be straightforward. As a practical matter for antitrust enforcement, it becomes less clear. The moment we go slightly less abstract and use the basic models that economists use, monopsony is not simply the mirror image of monopoly. The tools that antitrust economists use to identify market power differ in the two cases.

    Monopsony Requires Studying Output

    Suppose that the FTC and DOJ are considering a proposed merger. For simplicity, they know that the merger will generate efficiency gains (and they want to allow it) or market power (and they want to stop it) but not both. The challenge is to look at readily available data like prices and quantities to decide which it is. (Let’s ignore the ideal case that involves being able to estimate elasticities of demand and supply.)

    In a monopoly case, if there are efficiency gains from a merger, the standard model has a clear prediction: the quantity sold in the output market will increase. An economist at the FTC or DOJ with sufficient data will be able to see (or estimate) the efficiencies directly in the output market. Efficiency gains result in either greater output at lower unit cost or else product-quality improvements that increase consumer demand. Since the merger lowers prices for consumers, the agencies (assume they care about the consumer welfare standard) will let the merger go through, since consumers are better off.

    In contrast, if the merger simply enhances monopoly power without efficiency gains, the quantity sold will decrease, either because the merging parties raise prices or because quality declines. Again, the empirical implication of the merger is seen directly in the market in question. Since the merger raises prices for consumers, the agencies (assume they care about the consumer welfare standard) will let not the merger go through, since consumers are worse off. In both cases, you judge monopoly power by looking directly at the market that may or may not have monopoly power.

    Unfortunately, the monopsony case is more complicated. Ultimately, we can be certain of the effects of monopsony only by looking at the output market, not the input market where the monopsony power is claimed.

    To see why, consider again a merger that generates either efficiency gains or market (now monopsony) power. A merger that creates monopsony power will necessarily reduce the prices and quantity purchased of inputs like labor and materials. An overly eager FTC may see a lower quantity of input purchased and jump to the conclusion that the merger increased monopsony power. After all, monopsonies purchase fewer inputs than competitive firms.

    Not so fast. Fewer input purchases may be because of efficiency gains. For example, if the efficiency gain arises from the elimination of redundancies in a hospital merger, the hospital will buy fewer inputs, hire fewer technicians, or purchase fewer medical supplies. This may even reduce the wages of technicians or the price of medical supplies, even if the newly merged hospitals are not exercising any market power to suppress wages.

    The key point is that monopsony needs to be treated differently than monopoly. The antitrust agencies cannot simply look at the quantity of inputs purchased in the monopsony case as the flip side of the quantity sold in the monopoly case, because the efficiency-enhancing merger can look like the monopsony merger in terms of the level of inputs purchased.

    How can the agencies differentiate efficiency-enhancing mergers from monopsony mergers? The easiest way may be for the agencies to look at the output market: an entirely different market than the one with the possibility of market power. Once we look at the output market, as we would do in a monopoly case, we have clear predictions. If the merger is efficiency-enhancing, there will be an increase in the output-market quantity. If the merger increases monopsony power, the firm perceives its marginal cost as higher than before the merger and will reduce output. 

    In short, as we look for how to apply antitrust to monopsony-power cases, the agencies and courts cannot look to the input market to differentiate them from efficiency-enhancing mergers; they must look at the output market. It is impossible to discuss monopsony power coherently without considering the output market.

    In real-world cases, mergers will not necessarily be either strictly efficiency-enhancing or strictly monopsony-generating, but a blend of the two. Any rigorous consideration of merger effects must account for both and make some tradeoff between them. The question of how guidelines should address monopsony power is inextricably tied to the consideration of merger efficiencies, particularly given the point above that identifying and evaluating monopsony power will often depend on its effects in downstream markets.

    This is just one complication that arises when we move from the purest of pure theory to slightly more applied models of monopoly and monopsony power. Geoffrey Manne, Dirk Auer, Eric Fruits, Lazar Radic and I go through more of the complications in our comments summited to the FTC and DOJ on updating the merger guidelines.

    What Assumptions Make the Difference Between Monopoly and Monopsony?

    Now that we have shown that monopsony and monopoly are different, how do we square this with the initial observation that it was arbitrary whether we say Armen has monopsony power over apples or monopoly power over bananas?

    There are two differences between the standard monopoly and monopsony models. First, in a vast majority of models of monopsony power, the agent with the monopsony power is buying goods only to use them in production. They have a “derived demand” for some factors of production. That demand ties their buying decision to an output market. For monopoly power, the firm sells the goods, makes some money, and that’s the end of the story.

    The second difference is that the standard monopoly model looks at one output good at a time. The standard factor-demand model uses two inputs, which introduces a tradeoff between, say, capital and labor. We could force monopoly to look like monopsony by assuming the merging parties each produce two different outputs, apples and bananas. An efficiency gain could favor apple production and hurt banana consumers. While this sort of substitution among outputs is often realistic, it is not the standard economic way of modeling an output market.

    The Biden administration’s antitrust reign of error continues apace. The U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division has indicated in recent months that criminal prosecutions may be forthcoming under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but refuses to provide any guidance regarding enforcement criteria.

    Earlier this month, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Powers stated that “there’s ample case law out there to help inform those who have concerns or questions” regarding Section 2 criminal enforcement, conveniently ignoring the fact that criminal Section 2 cases have not been brought in almost half a century. Needless to say, those ancient Section 2 cases (which are relatively few in number) antedate the modern era of economic reasoning in antitrust analysis. What’s more, unlike Section 1 price-fixing and market-division precedents, they yield no clear rule as to what constitutes criminal unilateral behavior. Thus, DOJ’s suggestion that old cases be consulted for guidance is disingenuous at best. 

    It follows that DOJ criminal-monopolization prosecutions would be sheer folly. They would spawn substantial confusion and uncertainty and disincentivize dynamic economic growth.

    Aggressive unilateral business conduct is a key driver of the competitive process. It brings about “creative destruction” that transforms markets, generates innovation, and thereby drives economic growth. As such, one wants to be particularly careful before condemning such conduct on grounds that it is anticompetitive. Accordingly, error costs here are particularly high and damaging to economic prosperity.

    Moreover, error costs in assessing unilateral conduct are more likely than in assessing joint conduct, because it is very hard to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive single-firm conduct, as DOJ’s 2008 Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 explains (citations omitted):

    Courts and commentators have long recognized the difficulty of determining what means of acquiring and maintaining monopoly power should be prohibited as improper. Although many different kinds of conduct have been found to violate section 2, “[d]efining the contours of this element … has been one of the most vexing questions in antitrust law.” As Judge Easterbrook observes, “Aggressive, competitive conduct by any firm, even one with market power, is beneficial to consumers. Courts should prize and encourage it. Aggressive, exclusionary conduct is deleterious to consumers, and courts should condemn it. The big problem lies in this: competitive and exclusionary conduct look alike.”

    The problem is not simply one that demands drawing fine lines separating different categories of conduct; often the same conduct can both generate efficiencies and exclude competitors. Judicial experience and advances in economic thinking have demonstrated the potential procompetitive benefits of a wide variety of practices that were once viewed with suspicion when engaged in by firms with substantial market power. Exclusive dealing, for example, may be used to encourage beneficial investment by the parties while also making it more difficult for competitors to distribute their products.

    If DOJ does choose to bring a Section 2 criminal case soon, would it target one of the major digital platforms? Notably, a U.S. House Judiciary Committee letter recently called on DOJ to launch a criminal investigation of Amazon (see here). Also, current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan launched her academic career with an article focusing on Amazon’s “predatory pricing” and attacking the consumer welfare standard (see here).

    Khan’s “analysis” has been totally discredited. As a trenchant scholarly article by Timothy Muris and Jonathan Nuechterlein explains:

    [DOJ’s criminal Section 2 prosecution of A&P, begun in 1944,] bear[s] an eerie resemblance to attacks today on leading online innovators. Increasingly integrated and efficient retailers—first A&P, then “big box” brick-and-mortar stores, and now online retailers—have challenged traditional retail models by offering consumers lower prices and greater convenience. For decades, critics across the political spectrum have reacted to such disruption by urging Congress, the courts, and the enforcement agencies to stop these American success stories by revising antitrust doctrine to protect small businesses rather than the interests of consumers. Using antitrust law to punish pro-competitive behavior makes no more sense today than it did when the government attacked A&P for cutting consumers too good a deal on groceries. 

    Before bringing criminal Section 2 charges against Amazon, or any other “dominant” firm, DOJ leaders should read and absorb the sobering Muris and Nuechterlein assessment. 

    Finally, not only would DOJ Section 2 criminal prosecutions represent bad public policy—they would also undermine the rule of law. In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then-Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch succinctly summarized the importance of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement:

    [H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.

    Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.

    The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.

    Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.

    Bringing criminal monopolization cases now, after a half-century of inaction, would be antithetical to the stability and continuity that underlie the rule of law. What’s worse, the failure to provide prosecutorial guidance would be squarely at odds with concerns of notice and reliance that inform the rule of law. As such, a DOJ decision to target firms for Section 2 criminal charges would offend the rule of law (and, sadly, follow the FTC ‘s recent example of flouting the rule of law, see here and here).

    In sum, the case against criminal Section 2 prosecutions is overwhelming. At a time when DOJ is facing difficulties winning “slam dunk” criminal Section 1  prosecutions targeting facially anticompetitive joint conduct (see here, here, and here), the notion that it would criminally pursue unilateral conduct that may generate substantial efficiencies is ludicrous. Hopefully, DOJ leadership will come to its senses and drop any and all plans to bring criminal Section 2 cases.

    [The ideas in this post from Truth on the Market regular Jonathan M. Barnett of USC Gould School of Law—the eighth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumare developed in greater detail in “Regulatory Rents: An Agency-Cost Analysis of the FTC Rulemaking Initiative,” a chapter in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. This is the first of two posts we are publishing today; see also this related post from Aaron Nielsen of BYU Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

    In December 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its statement of regulatory priorities for 2022, which describes its intention to expand the agency’s rulemaking activities to target “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), in addition to (and in some cases, presumably in place of) the conventional mechanism of case-by-case adjudication. Agency leadership (meaning, the FTC chair and the majority commissioners) largely characterizes the rulemaking initiative as a logistical improvement to enable the agency to more efficiently execute its statutory commitment to preserve competitive markets. Unburdened by the costs and delays inherent to the adjudicative process (which, in the antitrust context, typically requires evidence of actual or likely competitive harm), the agency will be able to take expedited action against UMCs based on rules preemptively set forth by the agency. 

    This shift from enforcement by adjudication to enforcement by rulemaking is far from a mechanical adjustment. Rather, it is best understood as part of an initiative to make fundamental changes to the substance and methodology of antitrust enforcement.  Substantively, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to alter the goals of antitrust enforcement so that it promotes what are deemed to be “equitable” market outcomes, rather than preserving the competitive process through which outcomes are determined by market forces. Methodologically, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to displace rule-of-reason treatment with the practical equivalent of per se prohibitions in a wide range of putatively “unfair” practices. Both steps would be inconsistent with the agency’s statutory mission to safeguard the competitive process or a meaningful commitment to a market-driven economy and the rule of law.

    Abandoning Competitive Markets

    Little steps sometimes portend bigger changes. 

    In July 2021, FTC leadership removed the following words from the mission description of the agency’s Bureau of Competition: “The Bureau’s work aims to preserve the free market system and assure the unfettered operation of the forces of supply and demand.” This omitted statement had tracked what remains the standard characterization by federal courts and agency guidelines of the core objective of the antitrust laws. Following this characterization, the antitrust laws seek to preserve the “rules of the game” for market competition, while remaining indifferent to the outcomes of such competition in any particular market. It is the competitive process, not the fortunes of particular competitors, that matters.

    Other statements by FTC leadership suggest that they seek to abandon this outcome-agnostic perspective. A memo from the FTC chair to staff, distributed in September 2021, states that the agency’s actions “shape the distribution of power and opportunity” and encourages staff “to take a holistic approach to identifying harms, recognizing that antitrust and consumer protection violations harm workers and independent businesses as well as consumers.” In a draft strategic plan distributed by FTC leadership in October 2021, the agency described its mission as promoting “fair competition” for the “benefit of the public.”  In contrast, the agency’s previously released strategic plan had described the agency’s mission as promoting “competition” for the benefit of consumers, consistent with the case law’s commitment to protecting consumer welfare, dating at least to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. et al. The change in language suggests that the agency’s objectives encompass a broad range of stakeholders and policies (including distributive objectives) that extends beyond, and could conflict with, its commitment to preserve the integrity of the competitive process.

    These little steps are part of a broader package of “big steps” undertaken during 2021 by FTC leadership. 

    In July 2021, the agency abandoned decades of federal case law and agency guidelines by rejecting the consumer-welfare standard for purposes of enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against UMCs. Relatedly, FTC leadership asserted in the same statement that Congress had delegated to the agency authority under Section 5 “to determine which practices fell into the category of ‘unfair methods of competition’”. Remarkably, the agency’s claimed ambit of prosecutorial discretion to identify “unfair” practices is apparently only limited by a commitment to exercise such power “responsibly.”

    This largely unbounded redefinition of the scope of Section 5 divorces the FTC’s enforcement authority from the concepts and methods as embodied in decades of federal case law and agency guidelines interpreting the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Those concepts and methods are in turn anchored in the consumer-welfare principle, which ensures that regulatory and judicial actions promote the public interest in the competitive process, rather than the private interests of any particular competitor or other policy goals not contemplated by the antitrust laws. Effectively, agency leadership has unilaterally converted Section 5 into an empty vessel into which enforcers may insert a fluid range of business practices that are deemed by fiat to pose a risk to “fair” competition. 

    Abandoning the Rule of Reason

    In the same statement in which FTC leadership rejected the consumer-welfare principle for purposes of Section 5 enforcement, it rejected the relevance of the rule of reason for these same purposes. In that statement, agency leadership castigated the rule of reason as a standard that “leads to soaring enforcement costs” and asserted that it is incompatible with Section 5 of the FTC Act. In March 2021 remarks delivered to the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter similarly lamented “[t]he effect of cramped case law,” specifically viewing as problematic the fact that “[u]nder current Section 5 jurisprudence, courts have to consider conduct under the ‘rule of reason,’ a fact-intensive investigation into whether the anticompetitive effects of the conduct outweigh the procompetitive justifications.” Hence, it appears that the FTC, in exercising its purported rulemaking powers against UMCs under Section 5, does not intend to undertake the balancing of competitive harms and gains that is the signature element of rule-of-reason analysis. Tellingly, the agency’s draft strategic plan, released in October 2021, omits language that it would execute its enforcement mission “without unduly burdening legitimate business activity” (language that had appeared in the previously released strategic plan)—again, suggesting that it plans to take littleaccount of the offsetting competitive gains attributable to a particular business practice.

    This change in methodology has two profound and concerning implications. 

    First, it means that any “unfair” practice targeted by the agency under Section 5 is effectively subject to a per se prohibition—that is, the agency can prevail merely by identifying that the defendant engaged in a particular practice, rather than having to show competitive harm. Note that this would represent a significant step beyond the per se rule that Sherman Act case law applies to certain cases of horizontal collusion. In those cases, a per se rule has been adopted because economic analysis indicates that these types of practices in general pose such a high risk of net anticompetitive harm that a rule-of-reason inquiry is likely to fail a cost-benefit test almost all of the time. By contrast, there is no indication that FTC leadership plans to confine its rulemaking activities to practices that systematically pose an especially high risk of anticompetitive harm, in part because it is not clear that agency leadership still views harm to the competitive process as being the determinative criterion in antitrust analysis.  

    Second, without further clarification from agency leadership, this means that the agency appears to place substantially reduced weight on the possibility of “false positive” error costs. This would be a dramatic departure from the conventional approach to error costs as reflected in federal antitrust case law. Antitrust scholars have long argued, and many courts have adopted the view, that “false positive” costs should be weighted more heavily relative to “false negative” error costs, principally on the ground that, as Judge Richard Posner once put it, “a cartel . . . carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.” To be clear, this weighted approach should still meaningfully assess the false-negative error costs that arise from mistaken failures to intervene. By contrast, the agency’s blanket rejection of the rule of reason in all circumstances for Section 5 purposes raises doubt as to whether it would assign any material weight to false-positive error costs in exercising its purported rulemaking power under Section 5 against UMCs. Consistent with this possibility, the agency’s July 2021 statement—which rejected the rule of reason specifically—adopted the view that Section 5 enforcement should target business practices in their “incipiency,” even absent evidence of a “likely” anticompetitive effect.

    While there may be reasonable arguments in favor of an equal weighting of false-positive and false-negative error costs (on the grounds that markets are sometimes slow to correct anticompetitive conduct, as compared to the speed with which courts correct false-positive interventions), it is hard to fathom a reasonable policy argument in favor of placing no material weight on the former cost category. Under conditions of uncertainty, the net economic effect of any particular enforcement action, or failure to take such action, gives rise to a mix of probability-adjusted false-positive and false-negative error costs. Hence, any sound policy framework seeks to minimize the sum of those costs. Moreover, the wholesale rejection of a balancing analysis overlooks extensive scholarship identifying cases in which federal courts, especially during the period prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1977 decision in Continental TV Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., applied per se rules that erroneously targeted business practices that were almost certainly generating net-positive competitive gains. Any such mistaken intervention counterproductively penalizes the efforts and ingenuity of the most efficient firms, which then harms consumers, who are compelled to suffer higher prices, lower quality, or fewer innovations than would otherwise have been the case.

    The dismissal of efficiency considerations and false-positive error costs is difficult to reconcile with an economically informed approach that seeks to take enforcement actions only where there is a high likelihood of improving economic welfare based on available evidence. On this point, it is worth quoting Oliver Williamson’s well-known critique of 1960s-era antitrust: “[I]f neither the courts nor the enforcement agencies are sensitive to these [efficiency] considerations, the system fails to meet a basic test of economic rationality. And without this the whole enforcement system lacks defensible standards and becomes suspect.”

    Abandoning the Rule of Law

    In a liberal democratic system of government, the market relies on the state’s commitment to set forth governing laws with adequate notice and specificity, and then to enforce those laws in a manner that is reasonably amenable to judicial challenge in case of prosecutorial error or malfeasance. Without that commitment, investors are exposed to arbitrary enforcement and would be reluctant to place capital at stake. In light of the agency’s concurrent rejection of the consumer-welfare and rule-of-reason principles, any future attempt by the FTC to exercise its purported Section 5 rulemaking powers against UMCs under what currently appears to be a regime of largely unbounded regulatory discretion is likely to violate these elementary conditions for a rule-of-law jurisdiction. 

    Having dismissed decades of learning and precedent embodied in federal case law and agency guidelines, FTC leadership has declined to adopt any substitute guidelines to govern its actions under Section 5 and, instead, has stated (in its July 2021 statement rejecting the consumer-welfare principle) that there are few bounds on its authority to specify and target practices that it deems to be “unfair.” This blunt approach contrasts sharply with the measured approach reflected in existing agency guidelines and federal case law, which seek to delineate reasonably objective standards to govern enforcers’ and courts’ decision making when evaluating the competitive merits of a particular business practice.  

    This approach can be observed, even if imperfectly, in the application of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) metric in the merger-review process and the use of “safety zones” (defined principally by reference to market-share thresholds) in the agencies’ Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and Antitrust Guidelines for Collaborations Among Competitors. This nuanced and evidence-based approach can also be observed in a decision such as California Dental Association v. FTC (1999), which provides a framework for calibrating the intensity of a rule-of-reason inquiry based on a preliminary assessment of the likely net competitive effect of a particular practice. In making these efforts to develop reasonably objective thresholds for triggering closer scrutiny, regulators and courts have sought to reconcile the open-ended language of the offenses described in the antitrust statutes—“restraint of trade” (Sherman Act Section 1) or “monopolization” (Sherman Act Section 2)—with a meaningful commitment to providing the market with adequate notice of the inherently fuzzy boundary between competitive and anti-competitive practices in most cases (and especially, in cases involving single-firm conduct that is most likely to be targeted by the agency under its Section 5 authority). 

    It does not appear that agency leadership intends to adopt this calibrated approach in implementing its rulemaking initiative, in light of its largely unbounded understanding of its Section 5 enforcement authority and wholesale rejection of the rule-of-reason methodology. If Section 5 is understood to encompass a broad and fluid set of social goals, including distributive objectives that can conflict with a commitment to the competitive process, then there is no analytical reference point by which markets can reliably assess the likelihood of antitrust liability and plan transactions accordingly. If enforcement under Section 5, including exercise of any purported rulemaking powers, does not require the agency to consider offsetting efficiencies attributable to any particular practice, then a chilling effect on everyday business activity and, more broadly, economic growth can easily ensue. In particular, firms may abstain from practices that may have mostly or even entirely procompetitive effects simply because there is some material likelihood that any such practice will be subject to investigation and enforcement under the agency’s understanding of its Section 5 authority and its adoption of a per se approach for which even strong evidence of predominantly procompetitive effects would be moot.

    From Free Markets to Administered Markets

    The FTC’s proposed rulemaking initiative, when placed within the context of other fundamental changes in substance and methodology adopted by agency leadership, is not easily reconciled with a market-driven economy in which resources are principally directed by the competitive forces of supply and demand. FTC leadership has reserved for the agency discretion to deem a business practice as “unfair,” while defining fairness by reference to an agglomeration of loosely described policy goals that include—but go beyond, and in some cases may conflict with—the agency’s commitment to preserve market competition. Concurrently, FTC leadership has rejected the rule-of-reason balancing approach and, by implication, may place no material weight on (or even fail to consider entirely) the efficiencies attributable to a particular business practice. 

    In the aggregate, any rulemaking activity undertaken within this unstructured framework would make it challenging for firms and investors to assess whether any particular action is likely to trigger agency scrutiny. Faced with this predicament, firms could only substantially reduce exposure to antitrust liability by seeking various forms of preclearance with FTC staff, who would in turn be led to issue supplemental guidance, rules, and regulations to handle the high volume of firm inquiries. Contrary to the advertised advantages of enforcement by rulemaking, this unavoidable cycle of rule interpretation and adjustment would likely increase substantially aggregate transaction and compliance costs as compared to enforcement by adjudication. While enforcement by adjudication occurs only periodically and impacts a limited number of firms, enforcement by rulemaking is a continuous activity that impacts all firms. The ultimate result: the free play of the forces of supply and demand would be replaced by a continuously regulated environment where market outcomes are constantly being reviewed through the administrative process, rather than being worked out through the competitive process.  

    This is a state of affairs substantially removed from the “free market system” to which the FTC’s Bureau of Competition had once been committed. Of course, that may be exactly what current agency leadership has in mind.

    [This guest post from Lawrence J. Spiwak of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies is the second in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

    While antitrust and regulation are supposed to be different sides of the same coin, there has always been a healthy debate over which enforcement paradigm is the most efficient. For those who have long suffered under the zealous hand of ex ante regulation, they would gladly prefer to be overseen by the more dispassionate and case-specific oversight of antitrust. Conversely, those dissatisfied with the current state of antitrust enforcement have increased calls to abandon the ex post approach of antitrust and return to some form of active, “always on” regulation.

    While the “antitrust versus regulation” debate has raged for some time, the election of President Joe Biden has brought a new wrinkle: Lina Khan, the controversial chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has made it very clear that she would like to expand the commission’s role from that of a mere enforcer of the nation’s antitrust laws to that of an agency that also promulgates ex ante “bright line” rules. Thus, the “antitrust versus regulation” debate is no longer academic.

    Khan’s efforts to convert the FTC into a de facto regulator should surprise no one, however. Even before she was nominated, Khan was quite vocal about her policy vision for the FTC. For example, in 2020, she co-authored an essay with her former boss (and later briefly her FTC colleague) Rohit Chopra in the University of Chicago Law Review titled “The Case for ‘Unfair Methods of Competition’ Rulemaking.” In it, Khan and Chopra lay out both legal and policy arguments to support “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) rulemaking. But as I explain in a law review published last year in the Federalist Society Review titled “A Change in Direction for the Federal Trade Commission?”, Khan and Chopra’s arguments simply do not hold up to scrutiny. While I encourage those interested in the bounds of the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority to read my paper in full, for purposes of this symposium, I include a brief summary of my analysis below.

    At the outset of their essay, Chopra and Khan lay out what they believe to be the shortcomings of modern antitrust enforcement. As they correctly note, “[a]ntitrust law today is developed exclusively through adjudication,” which is designed to “facilitate[] nuanced and fact-specific analysis of liability and well-tailored remedies.” However, the authors contend that, while a case-by-case approach may sound great in theory, “in practice, the reliance on case-by-case adjudication yields a system of enforcement that generates ambiguity, unduly drains resources from enforcers, and deprives individuals and firms of any real opportunity to democratically participate in the process.” Chopra and Khan blame this alleged policy failure on the abandonment of per se rules in favor of the use of the “rule-of-reason” approach in antitrust jurisprudence. In their view, a rule-of-reason approach is nothing more than “a broad and open-ended inquiry into the overall competitive effects of particular conduct [which] asks judges to weigh the circumstances to decide whether the practice at issue violates the antitrust laws.” To remedy this perceived analytical shortcoming, they argue that the commission should step into the breach and promulgate ex ante bright-line rules to better enforce the prohibition against “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) outlined in Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

    As a threshold matter, while courts have traditionally provided guidance as to what exactly constitutes “unfair methods of competition,” Chopra and Khan argue that it should be the FTC that has that responsibility in the first instance. According to Chopra and Khan, because Congress set up the FTC as the independent expert agency to implement the FTC Act and because the phrase “unfair methods of competition” is ambiguous, courts must accord great deference to “FTC interpretations of ‘unfair methods of competition’” under the Supreme Court’s Chevron doctrine.

    The authors then argue that the FTC has statutory authority to promulgate substantive rules to enforce the FTC’s interpretation of UMC. In particular, they point to the broad catch-all provision in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. Section 6(g) provides, in relevant part, that the FTC may “[f]rom time to time . . . make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Although this catch-all rulemaking provision is far from the detailed statutory scheme Congress set forth in the Magnuson-Moss Act to govern rulemaking to deal with Section 5’s other prohibition against “unfair or deceptive acts and practices” (UDAP), Chopra and Khan argue that the D.C. Circuit’s 1973 ruling in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC—a case that predates the Magnuson-Moss Act—provides judicial affirmation that the FTC has the authority to “promulgate substantive rules, not just procedural rules” under Section 6(g). Stating Khan’s argument differently: although there may be no affirmative specific grant of authority for the FTC to engage in UMC rulemaking, in the absence of any limit on such authority, the FTC may engage in UMC rulemaking subject to the constraints of the Administrative Procedure Act.

    As I point out in my paper, while there are certainly strong arguments that the FTC lacks UMC rulemaking authority (see, e.g., Ohlhausen & Rill, “Pushing the Limits? A Primer on FTC Competition Rulemaking”), it is my opinion that, given the current state of administrative law—in particular, the high level of judicial deference accorded to agencies under both Chevron and the “arbitrary and capricious standard”—whether the FTC can engage in UMC rulemaking remains a very open question.

    That said, even if we assume arguendo that the FTC does, in fact, have UMC rulemaking authority, the case law nonetheless reveals that, despite Khan’s hopes and desires, the FTC cannot unilaterally abandon the consumer welfare standard. As I explain in detail in my paper, even with great judicial deference, it is well-established that independent agencies simply cannot ignore antitrust terms of art (especially when that agency is specifically charged with enforcing the antitrust laws).  Thus, Khan may get away with initiating UMC rulemaking, but, for example, attempting to impose a mandatory common carrier-style non-discrimination rule may be a bridge too far.

    Khan’s Policy Arguments in Favor of UMC Rulemaking

    Separate from the legal debate over whether the FTC can engage in UMC rulemaking, it is also important to ask whether the FTC should engage in UMC rulemaking. Khan essentially posits that the American economy needs a generic business regulator possessed with plenary power and expansive jurisdiction. Given the United States’ well-documented (and sordid) experience with public-utility regulation, that’s probably not a good idea.

    Indeed, to Khan and Chopra, ex ante regulation is superior to ex post antitrust enforcement. For example, they submit that UMC “rulemaking would enable the Commission to issue clear rules to give market participants sufficient notice about what the law is, helping ensure that enforcement is predictable.” Moreover, they argue that “establishing rules could help relieve antitrust enforcement of steep costs and prolonged trials.” In particular, “[t]argeting conduct through rulemaking, rather than adjudication, would likely lessen the burden of expert fees or protracted litigation, potentially saving significant resources on a present-value basis.” And third, they contend that rulemaking “would enable the Commission to establish rules through a transparent and participatory process, ensuring that everyone who may be affected by a new rule has the opportunity to weigh in on it, granting the rule greater legitimacy.”   

    Khan’s published writings argue forcefully for greater regulatory power, but they suffer from analytical omissions that render her judgment questionable. For example, it is axiomatic that, while it is easy to imagine or theorize about the many benefits of regulation, regulation imposes significant costs of both the intended and unintended sorts. These costs can include compliance costs, reductions of innovation and investment, and outright entry deterrence that protects incumbents. Yet nowhere in her co-authored essay does Khan contemplate a cost-benefit analysis before promulgating a new regulation; she appears to assume that regulation is always costless, easy, and beneficial, on net. Unfortunately, history shows that we cannot always count on FTC commissioners to engage in wise policymaking.

    Khan also fails to contemplate the possibility that changing market circumstances or inartful drafting might call for the removal of regulations previously imposed. Among other things, this failure calls into question her rationale that “clear rules” would make “enforcement … predictable.” Why, then, does the government not always use clear rules, instead of the ham-handed approach typical of regulatory interventions? More importantly, enforcement of rules requires adjudication on a case-by-case basis that is governed by precedent from prior applications of the rule and due process.

    Taken together, Khan’s analytical omissions reveal a lack of historical awareness about (and apparently any personal experience with) the realities of modern public-utility regulation. Indeed, Khan offers up as an example of purported rulemaking success the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order, which imposed legacy common-carrier regulations designed for the old Ma Bell monopoly on the internet. But as I detail extensively in my paper, the history of net-neutrality regulation bears witness that Khan’s assertions that this process provided “clear rules,” was faster and cheaper, and allowed for meaningful public participation simply are not true.

    [The following is a guest post from Andrew Mercado, a research assistant at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an adjunct professor and research assistant at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School.]

    Barry Schwartz’s seminal work “The Paradox of Choice” has received substantial attention since its publication nearly 20 years ago. In it, Schwartz argued that, faced with an ever-increasing plethora of products to choose from, consumers often feel overwhelmed and seek to limit the number of choices they must make.

    In today’s online digital economy, a possible response to this problem is for digital platforms to use consumer data to present consumers with a “manageable” array of choices and thereby simplify their product selection. Appropriate “curation” of product-choice options may substantially benefit consumer welfare, provided that government regulators stay out of the way.   

    New Research

    In a new paper in the American Economic Review, Mark Armstrong and Jidong Zhou—of Oxford and Yale universities, respectively—develop a theoretical framework to understand how companies compete using consumer data. Their findings conclude that there is, in fact, an impact on consumer, producer, and total welfare when different privacy regimes are enacted to change the amount of information a company can use to personalize recommendations.

    The authors note that, at least in theory, there is an optimal situation that maximizes total welfare (scenario one). This is when a platform can aggregate information on consumers to such a degree that buyers and sellers are perfectly matched, leading to consumers buying their first-best option. While this can result in marginally higher prices, understandably leading to higher welfare for producers, search and mismatch costs are minimized by the platform, leading to a high level of welfare for consumers.

    The highest level of aggregate consumer welfare comes when product differentiation is minimized (scenario two), leading to a high number of substitutes and low prices. This, however, comes with some level of mismatch. Since consumers are not matched with any recommendations, search costs are high and introduce some error. Some consumers may have had a higher level of welfare with an alternative product, but do not feel the negative effects of such mismatch because of the low prices. Therefore, consumer welfare is maximized, but producer welfare is significantly lower.

    Finally, the authors suggest a “nearly total welfare” optimal solution in suggesting a “top two-best” scheme (scenario three), whereby consumers are shown their top two best options without explicit ranking. This nearly maximizes total welfare, since consumers are shown the best options for them and, even if the best match isn’t chosen, the second-best match is close in terms of welfare.

    Implications

    In cases of platform data aggregation and personalization, scenarios one, two, and three can be represented as different privacy regimes.

    Scenario one (a personalized-product regime) is akin to unlimited data gathering, whereby platforms can use as much information as is available to perfectly suggest products based on revealed data. From a competition perspective, interfirm competition will tend to decrease under this regime, since product differentiation will be accentuated, and substitutability will be masked. Since one single product will be shown as the “correct” product, the consumer will not want to shift to a different, welfare-inferior product and firms have incentive to produce ever more specialized products for a relatively higher price. Total welfare under this regime is maximized, with producers using their information to garner a relatively large share of economic surplus. Producers are effectively matched with consumers, and all gains from trade are realized.

    Scenario two (a data-privacy regime) is one of near-perfect data privacy, whereby the platform is only able to recommend products based on general information, such as sales trends, new products, or product specifications. Under this regime, competition is maximized, since consumers consider a large pool of goods to be close substitutes. Differences in offered products are downplayed, which has the tendency to reduce prices and increase quality, but at the tradeoff of some consumer-product mismatch. For consumers who want a general product and a low price, this is likely the best option, since prices are low, and competition is high. However, for consumers who want the best product match for their personal use case, they will likely undertake search costs, increasing their opportunity cost of product acquisition and tending toward a total cost closer to the cost under a personalized-product regime.

    Scenario three (a curated-list regime) represents defined guardrails surrounding the display of information gathered, along the same lines as the personalized-product regime. Platforms remain able to gather as much information as they desire in order to make a personalized recommendation, but they display an array of products that represent the first two (or three to four, with tighter anti-preference rules) best-choice options. These options are displayed without ranking the products, allowing the consumer to choose from a curated list, rather than a single product. The scenario-three regime has two effects on the market:

    1. It will tend to decrease prices through increased competition. Since firms can know only which consumers to target, not which will choose the product, they have to effectively compete with closely related products.
    2. It will likely spur innovation and increase competition from nascent competitors.

    From an innovation perspective, firms will have to find better methods to differentiate themselves from the competition, increasing the probability of a consumer acquiring their product. Also, considering nascent competitors, a new product has an increased chance of being picked when ranked sufficiently high to be included on the consumer’s curated list. In contrast, the probability of acquisition under scenario one’s personalized-product regime is low, since the new product must be a better match than other, existing products. Similarly, under scenario two’s data-privacy regime, there is so much product substitutability in the market that the probability of choosing any one new product is low.

    Below is a list of how the regimes stack up:

    • Personalized-Product: Total welfare is maximized, but prices are relatively higher and competition is relatively lower than under a data-privacy regime.
    • Data-Privacy: Consumer welfare and competition are maximized, and prices are theoretically minimized, but at the cost of product mismatch. Consumers will face search costs that are not reflected in the prices paid.
    • Curated-List: Consumer welfare is higher and prices are lower than under a personalized-product regime and competition is lower than under a data-privacy regime, but total welfare is nearly optimal when considering innovation and nascent-competitor effects.

    Policy in Context

    Applying these theoretical findings to fashion administrable policy prescriptions is understandably difficult. A far easier task is to evaluate the welfare effects of actual and proposed government privacy regulations in the economy. In that light, I briefly assess a recently enacted European data-platform privacy regime and U.S. legislative proposals that would restrict data usage under the guise of bans on “self-preferencing.” I then briefly note the beneficial implications of self-preferencing associated with the two theoretical data-usage scenarios (scenarios one and three) described above (scenario two, data privacy, effectively renders self-preferencing ineffective). 

    GDPR

    The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—among the most ambitious and all-encompassing data-privacy regimes to date—has significant negative ramifications for economic welfare. This regulation is most like the second scenario, whereby data collection and utilization are seriously restricted.

    The GDPR diminishes competition through its restrictions on data collection and sharing, which reduce the competitive pressure platforms face. For platforms to gain a complete profile of a consumer for personalization, they cannot only rely on data collected on their platform. To ensure a level of personalization that effectively reduces search costs for consumers, these platforms must be able to acquire data from a range of sources and aggregate that data to create a complete profile. Restrictions on aggregation are what lead to diminished competition online.

    The GDPR grants consumers the right to choose both how their data is collected and how it is distributed. Not only do platforms themselves have obligations to ensure consumers’ wishes are met regarding their privacy, but firms that sell data to the platform are obligated to ensure the platform does not infringe consumers’ privacy through aggregation.

    This creates a high regulatory burden for both the platform and the data seller and reduces the incentive to transfer data between firms. Since the data seller can be held liable for actions taken by the platform, this significantly increases the price at which the data seller will transfer the data. By increasing the risk of regulatory malfeasance, the cost of data must now incorporate some risk premium, reducing the demand for outside data.

    This has the effect of decreasing the quality of personalization and tilting the scales toward larger platforms, who have more robust data-collection practices and are able to leverage economies of scale to absorb high regulatory-enforcement costs. The quality of personalization is decreased, since the platform has incentive to create a consumption profile based on activity it directly observes without considering behavior occurring outside of the platform. Additionally, those platforms that are already entrenched and have large user bases are better able to manage the regulatory burden of the GDPR. One survey of U.S. companies with more than 500 workers found that 68% planned to spend between $1 and $10 million in upfront costs to prepare for GDPR compliance, a number that will likely pale in comparison to the long-term compliance costs. For nascent competitors, this outlay of capital represents a significant barrier to entry.

    Additionally, as previously discussed, consumers derive some benefit from platforms that can accurately recommend products. If this is the case, then large platforms with vast amounts of accumulated, first-party data will be the consumers’ destination of choice. This will tend to reduce the ability for smaller firms to compete, simply because they do not have access to the same scale of data as the large platforms when data cannot be easily transferred between parties.

    SelfPreferencing

    Claims of anticompetitive behavior by platforms are abundant (e.g., see here and here), and they often focus on the concept of self-preferencing. Self-preferencing refers to when a company uses its economies of scale, scope, or a combination of the two to offer products at a lower price through an in-house brand. In decrying self-preferencing, many commentators and politicians point to an alleged “unfair advantage” in tech platforms’ ability to leverage data and personalization to drive traffic toward their own products.

    It is far from clear, however, that this practice reduces consumer welfare. Indeed, numerous commentaries (e.g., see here and here) circulated since the introduction of anti-preferencing bills in the U.S. Congress (House; Senate) have rejected the notion that self-preferencing is anti-competitive or anti-consumer.

    There are good reasons to believe that self-preferencing promotes both competition and consumer welfare. Assume that a company that manufactures or contracts for its own, in-house products can offer them at a marginally lower price for the same relative quality. This decrease in price raises consumer welfare. The in-house brand’s entrance into the market represents a potent competitive threat to firms already producing products, who in turn now have incentive to lower their own prices or raise the quality of their own goods (or both) to maintain their consumer base. This creates even more consumer welfare, since all consumers, not just the ones purchasing the in-house goods, are better off from the entrance of an in-house brand.

    It therefore follows that the entrance of an in-house brand and self-preferencing in the data-utilizing regimes discussed above has the potential to enhance consumer welfare.

    In general, the use of data analysis on the platform can allow for targeted product entrance into certain markets. If the platform believes it can make a product of similar quality for a lower price, then it will enter that market and consumers will be able to choose a comparable product for a lower price. (If the company does not believe it is able to produce such a product, it will not enter the market with an in-house brand, and consumer welfare will stay the same.) Consumer welfare will further rise as firms producing products that compete against the in-house brand will innovate to compete more effectively.

    To be sure, under a personalized-product regime (scenario one), platforms may appear to have an incentive to self-preference to the detriment of consumers. If consumers trust the platform to show the greatest welfare-producing product before the emergence of an in-house brand, the platform may use this consumer trust to its advantage and suggest its own, potentially consumer-welfare-inferior product instead of a competitor’s welfare-superior product. In such a case, consumer welfare may decrease in the face of an in-house brand’s entrance.

    The extent of any such welfare loss, however, may be ameliorated (or eliminated entirely) by the platform’s concern that an unexpectedly low level of house-brand product quality will diminish its reputation. Such a reputational loss could come about due to consumer disappointment, plus the efforts of platform rivals to highlight the in-house product’s inferiority. As such, the platform might decide to enhance the quality of its “inferior” in-house offering, or refrain from offering an in-house brand at all.

    A curated-list regime (scenario three) is unequivocally consumer-welfare beneficial. Under such a regime, consumers will be shown several more options (a “manageable” number intended to minimize consumer-search costs) than under a personalized-product regime. Consumers can actively compare the offerings from different firms to determine the correct product for their individual use. In this case, there is no incentive to self-preference to the detriment of the consumer, as the consumer is able to make value judgements between the in-house brand and the alternatives.

    If the in-house brand is significantly lower in price, but also lower in quality, consumers may not see the two as interchangeable and steer away from the in-house brand. The same follows when the in-house brand is higher in both price and quality. The only instance where the in-house brand has a strong chance of success is when the price is lower than and the quality is greater than competing products. This will tend to increase consumer welfare. Additionally, the entrance of consumer-welfare-superior products into a competitive market will encourage competing firms to innovate and lower prices or raise quality, again increasing consumer welfare for all consumers.

    Conclusion

    What effects do digital platform-data policies have on consumer welfare? As a matter of theory, if providing an increasing number of product choices does not tend to increase consumer welfare, then do reductions in prices or increases in quality? What about precise targeting of personal-product choices? How about curation—the idea that a consumer raises his or her level of certainty by outsourcing decision-making to a platform that chooses a small set of products for the consumer’s consideration at any given moment? Apart from these theoretical questions, is the current U.S. legal treatment of platform data usage doing a generally good job of promoting consumer welfare? Finally, considering this overview, are new government interventions in platform data policy likely to benefit or harm consumers?

    Recently published economic research develops theoretical scenarios that demonstrate how digital platform curation of consumer data may facilitate welfare-enhancing consumer-purchase decisions. At least implicitly, this research should give pause to proponents of major new restrictions of platform data usage.

    Furthermore, a review of actual and proposed regulatory restrictions underscores the serious welfare harm of government meddling in digital platform-data usage.   

    After the first four years of GDPR, it is clear that there have been significant negative unintended consequences stemming from omnibus privacy regulation. Competition has decreased, regulatory barriers to entry have increased, and consumers are marginally worse off. Since companies are less able and willing to leverage data in their operations and service offerings—due in large part to the risk of hefty fines—they are less able to curate and personalize services to consumers.

    Additionally, anti-preferencing bills in the United States threaten to suppress the proper functioning of platform markets and reduce consumer welfare by making the utilization of data in product-market decisions illegal. More research is needed to determine the aggregate welfare effects of such preferencing on platforms, but all early indications point to the fact that consumers are better off when an in-house brand enters the market and increases competition.

    Furthermore, current U.S. government policy, which generally allows platforms to use consumer data freely, is good for consumer welfare. Indeed, the consumer-welfare benefits generated by digital platforms, which depend critically on large volumes of data, are enormous. This is documented in a well-reasoned Harvard Business Review article (by an MIT professor and his student) that utilizes online choice experiments based on digital-survey techniques.

    The message is clear. Governments should avoid new regulatory meddling in digital platform consumer-data usage practices. Such meddling would harm consumers and undermine the economy.