Admirers of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and other antitrust populists often trace the history of American anti-monopoly sentiments from the Founding Era through the Progressive Era’s passage of laws to fight the scourge of 19th century monopolists. For example, Matt Stoller of the American Economic Liberties Project, both in his book Goliath and in other writings, frames the story of America essentially as a battle between monopolists and anti-monopolists.
According to this reading, it was in the late 20th century that powerful corporations and monied interests ultimately succeeded in winning the battle in favor of monopoly power against antitrust authorities, aided by the scholarship of the “ideological” Chicago school of economics and more moderate law & economics scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
It is a framing that leaves little room for disagreements about economic theory or evidence. One is either anti-monopoly or pro-monopoly, anti-corporate power or pro-corporate power.
What this story muddles is that the dominant anti-monopoly strain from English common law, which continued well into the late 19th century, was opposed specifically to government-granted monopoly. In contrast, today’s “anti-monopolists” focus myopically on alleged monopolies that often benefit consumers, while largely ignoring monopoly power granted by government. The real monopoly problem antitrust law fails to solve is its immunization of anticompetitive government policies. Recovering the older anti-monopoly tradition would better focus activists today.
Common Law Anti-Monopoly Tradition
Scholars like Timothy Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute have written about the right to earn a living that arose out of English common law and was inherited by the United States. This anti-monopoly stance was aimed at government-granted privileges, not at successful business ventures that gained significant size or scale.
For instance, 1602’s Darcy v. Allein, better known as the “Case of Monopolies,” dealt with a “patent” originally granted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1576 to Ralph Bowes, and later bought by Edward Darcy, to make and sell playing cards. Darcy did not innovate playing cards; he merely had permission to be the sole purveyor. Thomas Allein, who attempted to sell playing cards he created, was sued for violating Darcy’s exclusive rights. Darcy’s monopoly ultimately was held to be invalid by the court, which refused to convict Allein.
Edward Coke, who actually argued on behalf of the patent in Darcy v. Allen, wrote that the case stood for the proposition that:
All trades, as well mechanical as others, which prevent idleness (the bane of the commonwealth) and exercise men and youth in labour, for the maintenance of themselves and their families, and for the increase of their substance, to serve the Queen when occasion shall require, are profitable for the commonwealth, and therefore the grant to the plaintiff to have the sole making of them is against the common law, and the benefit and liberty of the subject. (emphasis added)
In essence, Coke’s argument was more closely linked to a “right to work” than to market structures, business efficiency, or firm conduct.
The courts largely resisted royal monopolies in 17th century England, finding such grants to violate the common law. For instance, in The Case of the Tailors of Ipswich, the court cited Darcy and found:
…at the common law, no man could be prohibited from working in any lawful trade, for the law abhors idleness, the mother of all evil… especially in young men, who ought in their youth, (which is their seed time) to learn lawful sciences and trades, which are profitable to the commonwealth, and whereof they might reap the fruit in their old age, for idle in youth, poor in age; and therefore the common law abhors all monopolies, which prohibit any from working in any lawful trade. (emphasis added)
The principles enunciated in these cases were eventually codified in the Statute of Monopolies, which prohibited the crown from granting monopolies in most circumstances. This was especially the case when the monopoly prevented the right to otherwise lawful work.
This common-law tradition also had disdain for private contracts that created monopoly by restraining the right to work. For instance, the famous Dyer’s case of 1414 held that a contract in which John Dyer promised not to practice his trade in the same town as the plaintiff was void for being an unreasonable restraint on trade.The judge is supposed to have said in response to the plaintiff’s complaint that he would have imprisoned anyone who had claimed such a monopoly on his own authority.
Over time, the common law developed analysis that looked at the reasonableness of restraints on trade, such as the extent to which they were limited in geographic reach and duration, as well as the consideration given in return. This part of the anti-monopoly tradition would later constitute the thread pulled on by the populists and progressives who created the earliest American antitrust laws.
Early American Anti-Monopoly Tradition
American law largely inherited the English common law system. It also inherited the anti-monopoly tradition the common law embodied. The founding generation of American lawyers were trained on Edward Coke’s commentary in “The Institutes of the Laws of England,” wherein he strongly opposed government-granted monopolies.
This sentiment can be found in the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which stated: “No monopolies shall be granted or allowed amongst us, but of such new Inventions that are profitable to the Countrie, and that for a short time.” In fact, the Boston Tea Party itself was in part a protest of the monopoly granted to the East India Company, which included a special refund from duties by Parliament that no other tea importers enjoyed.
This anti-monopoly tradition also can be seen in the debates at the Constitutional Convention. A proposal to give the federal government power to grant “charters of incorporation” was voted down on fears it could lead to monopolies. Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and several Antifederalists expressed concerns about the new national government’s ability to grant monopolies, arguing that an anti-monopoly clause should be added to the Constitution. Six states wanted to include provisions that would ban monopolies and the granting of special privileges in the Constitution.
Coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, liberalization of corporate law made it easier for private persons to organize firms that were not simply grants of exclusive monopoly. But discontent with industrialization and other social changes contributed to the birth of a populist movement, and later to progressives like Brandeis, who focused on private combinations and corporate power rather than government-granted privileges. This is the strand of anti-monopoly sentiment that continues to dominate the rhetoric today.
What This Means for Today
Modern anti-monopoly advocates have largely forgotten the lessons of the long Anglo-American tradition that found government is often the source of monopoly power. Indeed, American law privileges government’s ability to grant favors to businesses through licensing, the tax code, subsidies, and even regulation. The state action doctrine from Parker v. Brown exempts state and municipal authorities from antitrust lawsuits even where their policies have anticompetitive effects. And the Noerr-Pennington doctrine protects the rights of industry groups to lobby the government to pass anticompetitive laws.
As a result, government is often used to harm competition, with no remedy outside of the political process that created the monopoly. Antitrust law is used instead to target businesses built by serving consumers well in the marketplace.
Recovering this older anti-monopoly tradition would help focus the anti-monopoly movement on a serious problem modern antitrust misses. While the consumer-welfare standard that modern antitrust advocates often decry has helped to focus the law on actual harms to consumers, antitrust more broadly continues to encourage rent-seeking by immunizing state action and lobbying behavior.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]
Judges sometimes claim that they do not pick winners when they decide antitrust cases. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Competitive conduct by its nature harms competitors, and so if antitrust were merely to prohibit harm to competitors, antitrust would then destroy what it is meant to promote.
What antitrust prohibits, therefore, is not harm to competitors but rather harm to competitors that fails to improve products. Only in this way is antitrust able to distinguish between the good firm that harms competitors by making superior products that consumers love and that competitors cannot match and the bad firm that harms competitors by degrading their products without offering consumers anything better than what came before.
That means, however, that antitrust must pick winners: antitrust must decide what is an improvement and what not. And a more popular search engine is a clear winner.
But one should not take its winningness for granted. For once upon a time there was another winner that the courts always picked, blocking antitrust case after antitrust case. Until one day the courts stopped picking it.
That was the economy of scale.
The Structure of the Google Case
Like all antitrust cases that challenge the exercise of power, the government’s case against Google alleges denial of an input to competitors in some market. Here the input is default search status in smartphones, the competitors are rival search providers, and the market is search advertising. The basic structure of the case is depicted in the figure below.
Although brought as a monopolization case under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, this is at heart an exclusive dealing case of the sort normally brought under Section 1 of the Sherman Act: the government’s core argument is that Google uses contracts with smartphone makers, pursuant to which the smartphone makers promise to make Google, and not competitors, the search default, to harm competing search advertising providers and by extension competition in the search advertising market.
The government must show anticompetitive conduct, monopoly power, and consumer harm in order to prevail.
Let us assume that there is monopoly power. The company has more than 70% of the search advertising market, which is in the zone normally required to prove that element of a monopolization claim.
The problem of anticompetitive conduct is only slightly more difficult.
Anticompetitive conduct is only ever one thing in antitrust: denial of an essential input to a competitor. There is no other way to harm rivals.
(To be sure, antitrust prohibits harm to competition, not competitors, but that means only that harm to competitors necessary but insufficient for liability. The consumer harm requirement decides whether the requisite harm to competitors is also harm to competition.)
It is not entirely clear just how important default search status really is to running a successful search engine, but let us assume that it is essential, as the government suggests.
Then the question whether Google’s contracts are anticompetitive turns on how much of the default search input Google’s contracts foreclose to rival search engines. If a lot, then the rivals are badly harmed. If a little, then there may be no harm at all.
The answer here is that there is a lot of foreclosure, at least if the government’s complaint is to be believed. Through its contracts with Apple and makers of Android phones, Google has foreclosed default search status to rivals on virtually every single smartphone.
That leaves consumer harm. And here is where things get iffy.
Usage as a Product Improvement: A Very Convenient Argument
The inquiry into consumer harm evokes measurements of the difference between demand curves and price lines, or extrapolations of compensating and equivalent variation using indifference curves painstakingly pieced together based on the assumptions of revealed preference.
But while the parties may pay experts plenty to spin such yarns, and judges may pretend to listen to them, in the end, for the judges, it always comes down to one question only: did exclusive dealing improve the product?
If it did, then the judge assumes that the contracts made consumers better off and the defendant wins. And if it did not, then off with their heads.
So, does foreclosing all this default search space to competitors make Google search advertising more valuable to advertisers?
Those who leap to Google’s defense say yes, for default search status increases the number of people who use Google’s search engine. And the more people use Google’s search engine, the more Google learns about how best to answer search queries and which advertisements will most interest which searchers. And that ensures that even more people will use Google’s search engine, and that Google will do an even better job of targeting ads on its search engine.
And that in turn makes Google’s search advertising even better: able to reach more people and to target ads more effectively to them.
None of that would happen if defaults were set to other engines and users spurned Google, and so foreclosing default search space to rivals undoubtedly improves Google’s product.
This is a nice argument. Indeed, it is almost too nice, for it seems to suggest that almost anything Google might do to steer users away from competitors and to itself deserves antitrust immunity. Suppose Google were to brandish arms to induce you to run your next search on Google. That would be a crime, but, on this account, not an antitrust crime. For getting you to use Google does make Google better.
The argument that locking up users improves the product is of potential use not just to Google but to any of the many tech companies that run on advertising—Facebook being a notable example—so it potentially immunizes an entire business model from antitrust scrutiny.
It turns out that has happened before.
Economies of Scale as a Product Improvement: Once a Convenient Argument
Once upon a time, antitrust exempted another kind of business for which products improve the more people used them. The business was industrial production, and it differs from online advertising only in the irrelevant characteristic that the improvement that comes with expanding use is not in the quality of the product but in the cost per unit of producing it.
The hallmark of the industrial enterprise is high fixed costs and low marginal costs. The textile mill differs from pre-industrial piecework weaving in that once a $10 million investment in machinery has been made, the mill can churn out yard after yard of cloth for pennies. The pieceworker, by contrast, makes a relatively small up-front investment—the cost of raising up the hovel in which she labors and making her few tools—but spends the same large amount of time to produce each new yard of cloth.
Large fixed costs and low marginal costs lie at the heart of the bounty of the modern age: the more you produce, the lower the unit cost, and so the lower the price at which you can sell your product. This is a recipe for plenty.
But it also means that, so long as consumer demand in a given market is lower than the capacity of any particular plant, driving buyers to a particular seller and away from competitors always improves the product, in the sense that it enables the firm to increase volume and reduce unit cost, and therefore to sell the product at a lower price.
If the promise of the modern age is goods at low prices, then the implication is that antitrust should never punish firms for driving rivals from the market and taking over their customers. Indeed, efficiency requires that only one firm should ever produce in any given market, at least in any market for which a single plant is capable of serving all customers.
For antitrust in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beguiled by this advantage to size, exclusive dealing, refusals to deal, even the knife in a competitor’s back: whether these ran afoul of other areas of law or not, it was all for the better because it allowed industrial enterprises to achieve economies of scale.
It is no accident that, a few notable triumphs aside, antitrust did not come into its own until the mid-1930s, 40 years after its inception, on the heels of an intellectual revolution that explained, for the first time, why it might actually be better for consumers to have more than one seller in a market.
These theories suggested that consumers might care as much about product quality as they do about product cost, and indeed would be willing to abandon a low-cost product for a higher-quality, albeit more expensive, one.
From this perspective, the world of economies of scale and monopoly production was the drab world of Soviet state-owned enterprises churning out one type of shoe, one brand of cleaning detergent, and so on.
The world of capitalism and technological advance, by contrast, was one in which numerous firms produced batches of differentiated products in amounts sometimes too small fully to realize all scale economies, but for which consumers were nevertheless willing to pay because the products better fit their preferences.
What is more, the striving of monopolistically competitive firms to lure away each other’s customers with products that better fit their tastes led to disruptive innovation— “creative destruction” was Schumpeter’s famous term for it—that brought about not just different flavors of the same basic concept but entirely new concepts. The competition to create a better flip phone, for example, would lead inevitably to a whole new paradigm, the smartphone.
This reasoning combined with work in the 1940s and 1950s on economic growth that quantified for the first time the key role played by technological change in the vigor of capitalist economies—the famous Solow residual—to suggest that product improvements, and not the cost reductions that come from capital accumulation and their associated economies of scale, create the lion’s share of consumer welfare. Innovation, not scale, was king.
Antitrust responded by, for the first time in its history, deciding between kinds of product improvements, rather than just in favor of improvements, casting economies of scale out of the category of improvements subject to antitrust immunity, while keeping quality improvements immune.
Casting economies of scale out of the protected product improvement category gave antitrust something to do for the first time. It meant that big firms had to plead more than just the cost advantages of being big in order to obtain license to push their rivals around. And government could now start reliably to win cases, rather than just the odd cause célèbre.
It is this intellectual watershed, and not Thurman Arnold’s tenacity, that was responsible for antitrust’s emergence as a force after World War Two.
Usage-Based Improvements Are Not Like Economies of Scale
The improvements in advertising that come from user growth fall squarely on the quality side of the ledger—the value they create is not due to the ability to average production costs over more ad buyers—and so they count as the kind of product improvements that antitrust continues to immunize today.
But given the pervasiveness of this mode of product improvement in the tech economy—the fact that virtually any tech firm that sells advertising can claim to be improving a product by driving users to itself and away from competitors—it is worth asking whether we have not reached a new stage in economic development in which this form of product improvement ought, like economies of scale, to be denied protection.
Shouldn’t the courts demand more and better innovation of big tech firms than just the same old big-data-driven improvements they serve up year after year?
Galling as it may be to those who, like myself, would like to see more vigorous antitrust enforcement in general, the answer would seem to be “no.” For what induced the courts to abandon antitrust immunity for economies of scale in the mid-20th century was not the mere fact that immunizing economies of scale paralyzed antitrust. Smashing big firms is not, after all, an end in itself.
Instead, monopolistic competition, creative destruction and the Solow residual induced the change, because they suggested both that other kinds of product improvement are more important than economies of scale and, crucially, that protecting economies of scale impedes development of those other kinds of improvements.
A big firm that excludes competitors in order to reach scale economies not only excludes competitors who might have produced an identical or near-identical product, but also excludes competitors who might have produced a better-quality product, one that consumers would have preferred to purchase even at a higher price.
To cast usage-based improvements out of the product improvement fold, a case must be made that excluding competitors in order to pursue such improvements will block a different kind of product improvement that contributes even more to consumer welfare.
If we could say, for example, that suppressing search competitors suppresses more-innovative search engines that ad buyers would prefer, even if those innovative search engines were to lack the advantages that come from having a large user base, then a case might be made that user growth should no longer count as a product improvement immune from antitrust scrutiny.
And even then, the case against usage-based improvements would need to be general enough to justify an epochal change in policy, rather than be limited to a particular technology in a particular lawsuit. For the courts hate to balance in individual cases, statements to the contrary in their published opinions notwithstanding.
But there is nothing in the Google complaint, much less the literature, to suggest that usage-based improvements are problematic in this way. Indeed, much of the value created by the information revolution seems to inhere precisely in its ability to centralize usage.
Americans Keep Voting to Centralize the Internet
In the early days of the internet, theorists mistook its decentralized architecture for a feature, rather than a bug. But internet users have since shown, time and again, that they believe the opposite.
For example, the basic protocols governing email were engineered to allow every American to run his own personal email server.
But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least the spam—and opted instead to get their email from a single server: the one run by Google as Gmail.
The basic protocols governing web traffic were also designed to allow every American to run whatever other communications services he wished—chat, video chat, RSS, webpages—on his own private server in distributed fashion.
But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least having to build and rebuild friend networks across platforms–—and they voted instead overwhelmingly to get their social media from a single server: Facebook.
Indeed, the basic protocols governing internet traffic were designed to allow every business to store and share its own data from its own computers, in whatever form.
But American businesses hated that freedom—not least the cost of having to buy and service their own data storage machines—and instead 40% of the internet is now stored and served from Amazon Web Services.
Similarly, advertisers have the option of placing advertisements on the myriad independently-run websites that make up the internet—known in the business as the “open web”—by placing orders through competitive ad exchanges. But advertisers have instead voted mostly to place ads on the handful of highly centralized platforms known as “walled gardens,” including Facebook, Google’s YouTube and, of course, Google Search.
The communications revolution, they say, is all about “bringing people together.” It turns out that’s true.
And that Google should win on consumer harm.
Remember the Telephone
Indeed, the same mid-20th century antitrust that thought so little of economies of scale as a defense immunized usage-based improvements when it encountered them in that most important of internet precursors: the telephone.
The telephone, like most internet services, gets better as usage increases. The more people are on a particular telephone network, the more valuable the network becomes to subscribers.
Just as with today’s internet services, the advantage of a large user base drove centralization of telephone services a century ago into the hands of a single firm: AT&T. Aside from a few business executives who liked the look of a desk full of handsets, consumers wanted one phone line that they could use to call everyone.
Although the government came close to breaking AT&T up in the early 20th century, the government eventually backed off, because a phone system in which you must subscribe to the right carrier to reach a friend just doesn’t make sense.
Instead, Congress and state legislatures stepped in to take the edge off monopoly by regulating phone pricing. And when antitrust finally did break AT&T up in 1982, it did so in a distinctly regulatory fashion, requiring that AT&T’s parts connect each other’s phone calls, something that Congress reinforced in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The message was clear: the sort of usage-based improvements one finds in communications are real product improvements. And antitrust can only intervene if it has a way to preserve them.
The equivalent of interconnection in search, that the benefits of usage, in the form of data and attention, be shared among competing search providers, might be feasible. But it is hard to imagine the court in the Google case ordering interconnection without the benefit of decades of regulatory experience with the defendant’s operations that the district court in 1982 could draw upon in the AT&T case.
The solution for the tech giants today is the same as the solution for AT&T a century ago: to regulate rather than to antitrust.
Microsoft Not to the Contrary, Because Users Were in Common
Parallels to the government’s 1990s-era antitrust case against Microsoft are not to the contrary.
As Sam Weinstein has pointed out to me, Microsoft, like Google, was at heart an exclusive dealing case: Microsoft contracted with computer manufacturers to prevent Netscape Navigator, an early web browser, from serving as the default web browser on Windows PCs.
That prevented Netscape, the argument went, from growing to compete with Windows in the operating system market, much the way the Google’s Chrome browser has become a substitute for Windows on low-end notebook computers today.
The D.C. Circuit agreed that default status was an essential input for Netscape as it sought eventually to compete with Windows in the operating system market.
The court also accepted the argument that the exclusive dealing did not improve Microsoft’s operating system product.
This at first seems to contradict the notion that usage improves products, for, like search advertising, operating systems get better as their user bases increase. The more people use an operating system, the more application developers are willing to write for the system, and the better the system therefore becomes.
It seems to follow that keeping competitors off competing operating systems and on Windows made Windows better. If the court nevertheless held Microsoft liable, it must be because the court refused to extend antitrust immunity to usage-based improvements.
The trouble with this line of argument is that it ignores the peculiar thing about the Microsoft case: that while the government alleged that Netscape was a potential competitor of Windows, Netscape was also an application that ran on Windows.
That means that, unlike Google and rival search engines, Windows and Netscape shared users.
So, Microsoft’s exclusive dealing did not increase its user base and therefore could not have improved Windows, at least not by making Windows more appealing for applications developers. Driving Netscape from Windows did not enable developers to reach even one more user. Conversely, allowing Netscape to be the default browser on Windows would not have reduced the number of Windows users, because Netscape ran on Windows.
By contrast, a user who runs a search in Bing does not run the same search simultaneously in Google, and so Bing users are not Google users. Google’s exclusive dealing therefore increases its user base and improves Google’s product, whereas Microsoft’s exclusive dealing served only to reduce Netscape’s user base and degrade Netscape’s product.
Indeed, if letting Netscape be the default browser on Windows was a threat to Windows, it was not because it prevented Microsoft from improving its product, but because Netscape might eventually have become an operating system, and indeed a better operating system, than Windows, and consumers and developers, who could be on both at the same time if they wished, might have nevertheless chosen eventually to go with Netscape alone.
Though it does not help the government in the Google case, Microsoft still does offer a beacon of hope for those concerned about size, for Microsoft’s subsequent history reminds us that yesterday’s behemoth is often today’s also ran.
And the favorable settlement terms Microsoft ultimately used to escape real consequences for its conduct 20 years ago imply that, at least in high-tech markets, we don’t always need antitrust for that to be true.
This guest post is by Corbin K. Barthold, Litigation Counsel at Washington Legal Foundation.
Complexity need not follow size. A star is huge but mostly homogenous. “It’s core is so hot,” explains Martin Rees, “that no chemicals can exist (complex molecules get torn apart); it is basically an amorphous gas of atomic nuclei and electrons.”
Nor does complexity always arise from remoteness of space or time. Celestial gyrations can be readily grasped. Thales of Miletus probably predicted a solar eclipse. Newton certainly could have done so. And we’re confident that in 4.5 billion years the Andromeda galaxy will collide with our own.
If the simple can be seen in the large and the distant, equally can the complex be found in the small and the immediate. A double pendulum is chaotic. Likewise the local weather, the fluctuations of a wildlife population, or the dispersion of the milk you pour into your coffee.
Our economy is not like a planetary orbit. It’s more like the weather or the milk. No one knows which companies will become dominant, which products will become popular, or which industries will become defunct. No one can see far ahead. Investing is inherently risky because the future of the economy, or even a single segment of it, is intractably uncertain. Do not hand your savings to any expert who says otherwise. Experts, in fact, often see the least of all.
But if a broker with a “sure thing” stock is a mountebank, what does that make an antitrust scholar with an “optimum structure” for a market?
Not a prophet.
There is so much that we don’t know. Consider, for example, the notion that market concentration is a good measure of market competitiveness. The idea seems intuitive enough, and in many corners it remains an article of faith.
But the markets where this assumption is most plausible—hospital care and air travel come to mind—are heavily shaped by that grand monopolist we call government. Only a large institution can cope with the regulatory burden placed on the healthcare industry. As Tyler Cowen writes, “We get the level of hospital concentration that we have in essence chosen through politics and the law.”
As for air travel: the government promotes concentration by barring foreign airlines from the domestic market. In any case, the state of air travel does not support a straightforward conclusion that concentration equals power. The price of flying has fallen almost continuously since passage of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978. The major airlines are disciplined by fringe carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest.
It is by no means clear that, aside from cases of government-imposed concentration, a consolidated market is something to fear. Technology lowers costs, lower costs enable scale, and scale tends to promote efficiency. Scale can arise naturally, therefore, from the process of creating better and cheaper products.
Say you’re a nineteenth-century cow farmer, and the railroad reaches you. Your shipping costs go down, and you start to sell to a wider market. As your farm grows, you start to spread your capital expenses over more sales. Your prices drop. Then refrigerated rail cars come along, you start slaughtering your cows on site, and your shipping costs go down again. Your prices drop further. Farms that fail to keep pace with your cost-cutting go bust. The cycle continues until beef is cheap and yours is one of the few cow farms in the area. The market improves as it consolidates.
As the decades pass, this story repeats itself on successively larger stages. The relentless march of technology has enabled the best companies to compete for regional, then national, and now global market share. We should not be surprised to see ever fewer firms offering ever better products and services.
Bear in mind, moreover, that it’s rarely the same company driving each leap forward. As Geoffrey Manne and Alec Stapp recently noted in this space, markets are not linear. Just after you adopt the next big advance in the logistics of beef production, drone delivery will disrupt your delivery network, cultured meat will displace your product, or virtual-reality flavoring will destroy your industry. Or—most likely of all—you’ll be ambushed by something you can’t imagine.
Does market concentration inhibit innovation? It’s possible. “To this day,” write Joshua Wright and Judge Douglas Ginsburg, “the complex relationship between static product market competition and the incentive to innovate is not well understood.”
There’s that word again: complex. When will thumping company A in an antitrust lawsuit increase the net amount of innovation coming from companies A, B, C, and D? Antitrust officials have no clue. They’re as benighted as anyone. These are the people who will squash Blockbuster’s bid to purchase a rival video-rental shop less than two years before Netflix launches a streaming service.
And it’s not as if our most innovative companies are using market concentration as an excuse to relax. If its only concern were maintaining Google’s grip on the market for internet-search advertising, Alphabet would not have spent $16 billion on research and development last year. It spent that much because its long-term survival depends on building the next big market—the one that does not exist yet.
No expert can reliably make the predictions necessary to say when or how a market should look different. And if we empowered some experts to make such predictions anyway, no other experts would be any good at predicting what the empowered experts would predict. Experts trying to give us “well structured” markets will instead give us a costly, politicized, and stochastic antitrust enforcement process.
Here’s a modest proposal. Instead of using the antitrust laws to address the curse of bigness, let’s create the Office of the Double Pendulum. We can place the whole section in a single room at the Justice Department.
All we’ll need is some ping-pong balls, a double pendulum, and a monkey. On each ball will be the name of a major corporation. Once a quarter—or a month; reasonable minds can differ—a ball will be drawn, and the monkey prodded into throwing the pendulum. An even number of twirls saves the company on the ball. An odd number dooms it to being broken up.
This system will punish success just as haphazardly as anything our brightest neo-Brandeisian scholars can devise, while avoiding the ruinously expensive lobbying, rent-seeking, and litigation that arise when scholars succeed in replacing the rule of law with the rule of experts.
All hail the chaos monkey. Unutterably complex. Ineffably simple.
A panelist brought up an interesting tongue-in-cheek observation about the rising populist antitrust movement at a Heritage antitrust event this week. To the extent that the new populist antitrust movement is broadly concerned about effects on labor and wage depression, then, in principle, it should also be friendly to cartels. Although counterintuitive, employees have long supported and benefited from cartels, because cartels generally afford both job security and higher wages than competitive firms. And, of course, labor itself has long sought the protection of cartels – in the form of unions – to secure the same benefits.
For instance, in the days before widespread foreign competition in domestic auto markets, native unionized workers of the big three producers enjoyed a relatively higher wage for relatively less output. Competition from abroad changed the economic landscape for both producers and workers with the end result being a reduction in union power and relatively lower overall wages for workers. The union model — a labor cartel — can guarantee higher wages to those workers.
The same story can be seen on other industries, as well, from telecommunications to service workers to public sector employees. Generally, market power on the labor demand side (employers) tends to facilitate market power on the labor supply side: firms with market power — with supracompetitive profits — can afford to pay more for labor and often are willing to do so in order to secure political support (and also to make it more expensive for potential competitors to hire skilled employees). Labor is a substantial cost for firms in competitive markets, however, so firms without market power are always looking to economize on labor (that is, have low wages, as few employees as needed, and to substitute capital for labor wherever efficient to do so).
Therefore, if broad labor effects should be a prime concern of antitrust, perhaps enforcers should use antitrust laws to encourage cartel formation when it might increase wages, regardless of the effects on productivity, prices, and other efficiencies that may arise (or perhaps, as a possible trump card to hold against traditional efficiencies justifications).
No one will make a serious case for promoting cartels (although Former FTC Chairman Pertshuk sounded similar notes in the late 70s), but the comment makes a deeper point about ongoing efforts to undermine the consumer welfare standard. Fundamental contradictions exist in antitrust rhetoric that is unmoored from economic analysis. Professor Hovenkamp highlighted this in a recent paper as well:
The coherence problem [in antitrust populism] shows up in goals that are unmeasurable and fundamentally inconsistent, although with their contradictions rarely exposed. Among the most problematic contradictions is the one between small business protection and consumer welfare. In a nutshell, consumers benefit from low prices, high output and high quality and variety of products and services. But when a firm or a technology is able to offer these things they invariably injure rivals, typically smaller or dedicated to older technologies, who are unable to match them. Although movement antitrust rhetoric is often opaque about specifics, its general effect is invariably to encourage higher prices or reduced output or innovation, mainly for the protection of small business. Indeed, that has been a predominant feature of movement antitrust ever since the Sherman Act was passed, and it is a prominent feature of movement antitrust today. Indeed, some spokespersons for movement antitrust write as if low prices are the evil that antitrust law should be combatting.
To be fair, even with careful economic analysis, it is not always perfectly clear how to resolve the tensions between antitrust and other policy preferences. For instance, Jonathan Adler described the collision between antitrust and environmental protection in cases where collusion might lead to better environmental outcomes. But even in cases like that, he noted it was essentially a free-rider problem and, as with intrabrand price agreements where consumer goodwill was a “commons” that had to be suitably maintained against possible free-riding retailers, what might be an antitrust violation in one context was not necessarily a violation in a second context.
Moreover, when the purpose of apparently “collusive” conduct is to actually ensure long term, sustainable production of a good or service (like fish), the behavior may not actually be anticompetitive. Thus, antitrust remains a plausible means of evaluating economic activity strictly on its own terms (and any alteration to the doctrine itself might actually be to prefer rule of reason analysis over per se analysis when examining these sorts of mitigating circumstances).
The vector of that evolution was toward the use of antitrust as a reliable, testable, and clear set of legal principles that are ultimately subject to economic analysis. When the populists ask us, for instance, to return to a time when judges could “prevent the conversion of concentrated economic power into concentrated political power” via antitrust law, they are asking for much more than just adding a new gloss to existing doctrine. They are asking for us to unlearn all of the lessons of the twentieth century that ultimately led toward the maturation of antitrust law.
It’s perfectly reasonable to care about political corruption, worker welfare, and income inequality. It’s not perfectly reasonable to try to shoehorn goals based on these political concerns into a body of legal doctrine that evolved a set of tools wholly inappropriate for achieving those ends.