Today would have been Henry Manne’s 90th birthday. When he passed away in 2015 he left behind an immense and impressive legacy. In 1991, at the inaugural meeting of the American Law & Economics Association (ALEA), Manne was named a Life Member of ALEA and, along with Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase, and federal appeals court judges Richard Posner and Guido Calabresi, one of the four Founders of Law and Economics. The organization I founded, the International Center for Law & Economics is dedicated to his memory, along with that of his great friend and mentor, UCLA economist Armen Alchian.
Manne is best known for his work in corporate governance and securities law and regulation, of course. But sometimes forgotten is that his work on the market for corporate control was motivated by concerns about analytical flaws in merger enforcement. As former FTC commissioners Maureen Ohlhausen and Joshua Wright noted in a 2015 dissenting statement:
The notion that the threat of takeover would induce current managers to improve firm performance to the benefit of shareholders was first developed by Henry Manne. Manne’s pathbreaking work on the market for corporate control arose out of a concern that antitrust constraints on horizontal mergers would distort its functioning. See Henry G. Manne, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control, 73 J. POL. ECON. 110 (1965).
But Manne’s focus on antitrust didn’t end in 1965. Moreover, throughout his life he was a staunch critic of misguided efforts to expand the power of government, especially when these efforts claimed to have their roots in economic reasoning — which, invariably, was hopelessly flawed. As his obituary notes:
In his teaching, his academic writing, his frequent op-eds and essays, and his work with organizations like the Cato Institute, the Liberty Fund, the Institute for Humane Studies, and the Mont Pèlerin Society, among others, Manne advocated tirelessly for a clearer understanding of the power of markets and competition and the importance of limited government and economically sensible regulation.
Thus it came to be, in 1974, that Manne was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, on Michigan Senator Philip A. Hart’s proposed Industrial Reorganization Act. His testimony is a tour de force, and a prescient rejoinder to the faddish advocates of today’s “hipster antitrust”— many of whom hearken longingly back to the antitrust of the 1960s and its misguided “gurus.”
Henry Manne’s trenchant testimony critiquing the Industrial Reorganization Act and its (ostensible) underpinnings is reprinted in full in this newly released ICLE white paper (with introductory material by Geoffrey Manne):
Sen. Hart proposed the Industrial Reorganization Act in order to address perceived problems arising from industrial concentration. The bill was rooted in the belief that industry concentration led inexorably to monopoly power; that monopoly power, however obtained, posed an inexorable threat to freedom and prosperity; and that the antitrust laws (i.e., the Sherman and Clayton Acts) were insufficient to address the purported problems.
That sentiment — rooted in the reflexive application of the (largely-discredited structure-conduct-performance (SCP) paradigm) — had already become largely passé among economists in the 70s, but it has resurfaced today as the asserted justification for similar (although less onerous) antitrust reform legislation and the general approach to antitrust analysis commonly known as “hipster antitrust.”
The critiques leveled against the asserted economic underpinnings of efforts like the Industrial Reorganization Act are as relevant today as they were then. As Henry Manne notes in his testimony:
To be successful in this stated aim [“getting the government out of the market”] the following dreams would have to come true: The members of both the special commission and the court established by the bill would have to be satisfied merely to complete their assigned task and then abdicate their tremendous power and authority; they would have to know how to satisfactorily define and identify the limits of the industries to be restructured; the Government’s regulation would not sacrifice significant efficiencies or economies of scale; and the incentive for new firms to enter an industry would not be diminished by the threat of a punitive response to success.
The lessons of history, economic theory, and practical politics argue overwhelmingly against every one of these assumptions.
Both the subject matter of and impetus for the proposed bill (as well as Manne’s testimony explaining its economic and political failings) are eerily familiar. The preamble to the Industrial Reorganization Act asserts that
competition… preserves a democratic society, and provides an opportunity for a more equitable distribution of wealth while avoiding the undue concentration of economic, social, and political power; [and] the decline of competition in industries with oligopoly or monopoly power has contributed to unemployment, inflation, inefficiency, an underutilization of economic capacity, and the decline of exports….
The echoes in today’s efforts to rein in corporate power by adopting structural presumptions are unmistakable. Compare, for example, this language from Sen. Klobuchar’s Consolidation Prevention and Competition Promotion Act of 2017:
[C]oncentration that leads to market power and anticompetitive conduct makes it more difficult for people in the United States to start their own businesses, depresses wages, and increases economic inequality;
undue market concentration also contributes to the consolidation of political power, undermining the health of democracy in the United States; [and]
the anticompetitive effects of market power created by concentration include higher prices, lower quality, significantly less choice, reduced innovation, foreclosure of competitors, increased entry barriers, and monopsony power.
Remarkably, Sen. Hart introduced his bill as “an alternative to government regulation and control.” Somehow, it was the antithesis of “government control” to introduce legislation that, in Sen. Hart’s words,
involves changing the life styles of many of our largest corporations, even to the point of restructuring whole industries. It involves positive government action, not to control industry but to restore competition and freedom of enterprise in the economy
Like today’s advocates of increased government intervention to design the structure of the economy, Sen. Hart sought — without a trace of irony — to “cure” the problem of politicized, ineffective enforcement by doubling down on the power of the enforcers.
Henry Manne was having none of it. As he pointedly notes in his testimony, the worst problems of monopoly power are of the government’s own making. The real threat to democracy, freedom, and prosperity is the political power amassed in the bureaucratic apparatus that frequently confers monopoly, at least as much as the monopoly power it spawns:
[I]t takes two to make that bargain [political protection and subsidies in exchange for lobbying]. And as we look around at various industries we are constrained to ask who has not done this. And more to the point, who has not succeeded?
It is unhappily almost impossible to name a significant industry in the United States that has not gained some degree of protection from the rigors of competition from Federal, State or local governments.
* * *
But the solution to inefficiencies created by Government controls cannot lie in still more controls. The politically responsible task ahead for Congress is to dismantle our existing regulatory monster before it strangles us.
We have spawned a gigantic bureaucracy whose own political power threatens the democratic legitimacy of government.
We are rapidly moving toward the worst features of a centrally planned economy with none of the redeeming political, economic, or ethical features usually claimed for such systems.
The new white paper includes Manne’s testimony in full, including his exchange with Sen. Hart and committee staffers following his prepared remarks.
It is, sadly, nearly as germane today as it was then.
One final note: The subtitle for the paper is a reference to the song “What Is Hip?” by Tower of Power. Its lyrics are decidedly apt:
You done went and found you a guru,
In your effort to find you a new you,
And maybe even managed
To raise your conscious level.
While you’re striving to find the right road,
There’s one thing you should know:
What’s hip today
Might become passé.
— Tower of Power, What Is Hip? (Emilio Castillo, John David Garibaldi & Stephen M. Kupka, What Is Hip? (Bob-A-Lew Songs 1973), from the album TOWER OF POWER (Warner Bros. 1973))
And here’s the song, in all its glory: