For decades, consumer-welfare enhancement appeared to be a key enforcement goal of competition policy (antitrust, in the U.S. usage) in most jurisdictions:
- The U.S. Supreme Court famously proclaimed American antitrust law to be a “consumer welfare prescription” in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. (1979).
- A study by the current adviser to the European Competition Commission’s chief economist found that that there are “many statements indicating that, seen from the European Commission, modern EU competition policy to a large extent is about protecting consumer welfare.”
- A comprehensive international survey presented at the 2011 Annual International Competition Network Conference, found that a majority of competition authorities state that “their national [competition] legislation refers either directly or indirectly to consumer welfare,” and that most competition authorities “base their enforcement efforts on the premise that they enlarge consumer welfare.”
Recently, however, the notion that a consumer welfare standard (CWS) should guide antitrust enforcement has come under attack (see here). In the United States, this movement has been led by populist “neo-Brandeisians” who have “call[ed] instead for enforcement that takes into account firm size, fairness, labor rights, and the protection of smaller enterprises.” (Interestingly, there appear to be more direct and strident published attacks on the CWS from American critics than from European commentators, perhaps reflecting an unspoken European assumption that “ordoliberal” strong government oversight of markets advances the welfare of consumers and society in general.) The neo-Brandeisian critique is badly flawed and should be rejected.
Assuming that the focus on consumer welfare in U.S. antitrust enforcement survives this latest populist challenge, what considerations should inform the design and application of a CWS? Before considering this question, one must confront the context in which it arises—the claim that the U.S. economy has become far less competitive in recent decades and that antitrust enforcement has been ineffective at addressing this problem. After dispatching with this flawed claim, I advance four principles aimed at properly incorporating consumer-welfare considerations into antitrust-enforcement analysis.
Does the US Suffer from Poor Antitrust Enforcement and Declining Competition?
Antitrust interventionists assert that lax U.S. antitrust enforcement has coincided with a serious decline in competition—a claim deployed to argue that, even if one assumes that promoting consumer welfare remains an overarching goal, U.S. antitrust policy nonetheless requires a course correction. After all, basic price theory indicates that a reduction in market competition raises deadweight loss and reduces consumers’ relative share of total surplus. As such, it might seem to follow that “ramping up antitrust” would lead to more vigorously competitive markets, featuring less deadweight loss and relatively more consumer surplus.
This argument, of course, avoids error cost, rent seeking, and public choice issues that raise serious questions about the welfare effects of more aggressive “invigorated” enforcement (see here, for example). But more fundamentally, the argument is based on two incorrect premises:
- That competition has declined; and
- That U.S. trustbusters have applied the CWS in a narrow manner ineffective to address competitive problems.
Those premises (which also underlie President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy) do not stand up to scrutiny.
In a recent article in the Stigler Center journal Promarket, Yale University economics professor Fiona Scott-Morton and Yale Law student Leah Samuel accepted those premises in complaining about poor antitrust enforcement and substandard competition (hyperlinks omitted and emphasis in the original):
In recent years, the [CWS] term itself has become the target of vocal criticism in light of mounting evidence that recent enforcement—and what many call the “consumer welfare standard era” of antitrust enforcement—has been a failure. …
This strategy of non-enforcement has harmed markets and consumers. Today we see the evidence of this under-enforcement in a range of macroeconomic measures, studies of markups, as well as in merger post-mortems and studies of anticompetitive behavior that agencies have not pursued. Non-economist observers– journalists, advocates, and lawyers – who have noticed the lack of enforcement and the pernicious results have learned to blame “economics” and the CWS. They are correct that using CWS, as defined and warped by Chicago-era jurists and economists, has been a failure. That kind of enforcement—namely, insufficient enforcement—does not protect competition. But we argue that the “economics” at fault are the corporate-sponsored Chicago School assumptions, which are at best outdated, generally unjustified, and usually incorrect.
While the Chicago School caused the “consumer welfare standard” to become associated with an anti-enforcement philosophy in the legal community, it has never changed its meaning among PhD-trained economists.
To an economist, consumer welfare is a well-defined concept. Price, quality, and innovation are all part of the demand curve and all form the basis for the standard academic definition of consumer welfare. CW is the area under the demand curve and above the quality-adjusted price paid. … Quality-adjusted price represents all the value consumers get from the product less the price they paid, and therefore encapsulates the role of quality of any kind, innovation, and price on the welfare of the consumer.
In my published response to Scott-Morton and Samuel, I summarized recent economic literature that contradicts the “competition is declining” claim. I also demonstrated that antitrust enforcement has been robust and successful, refuting the authors’ claim to the contrary (cross links to economic literature omitted):
There are only two problems with the [authors’] argument. First, it is not clear at all that competition has declined during the reign of this supposedly misused [CWS] concept. Second, the consumer welfare standard has not been misapplied at all. Indeed, as antitrust scholars and enforcement officials have demonstrated … modern antitrust enforcement has not adopted a narrow “Chicago School” view of the world. To the contrary, it has incorporated the more sophisticated analysis the authors advocate, and enforcement initiatives have been vigorous and largely successful. Accordingly, the authors’ call for an adjustment in antitrust enforcement is a solution in search of a non-existent problem.
In short, competitive conditions in U.S. markets are robust and have not been declining. Moreover, U.S. antitrust enforcement has been sophisticated and aggressive, fully attuned to considerations of quality and innovation.
A Suggested Framework for Consumer Welfare Analysis
Although recent claims of “weak” U.S. antitrust enforcement are baseless, they do, nevertheless, raise “front and center” the nature of the CWS. The CWS is a worthwhile concept, but it eludes a precise definition. That is as it should be. In our common law system, fact-specific analyses of particular competitive practices are key to determining whether welfare is or is not being advanced in the case at hand. There is no simple talismanic CWS formula that is readily applicable to diverse cases.
While Scott-Morton argues that the area under the demand curve (consumer surplus) is essentially coincident with the CWS, other leading commentators take account of the interests of producers as well. For example, the leading antitrust treatise writer, Herbert Hovenkamp, suggests thinking about consumer welfare in terms of “maxim[izing] output that is consistent with sustainable competition. Output includes quantity, quality, and improvements in innovation. As an aside, it is worth noting that high output favors suppliers, including labor, as well as consumers because job opportunities increase when output is higher.” (Hovenkamp, Federal Antitrust Policy 102 (6th ed. 2020).)
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Christine Wilson (like Ken Heyer and other scholars) advocates a “total welfare standard” (consumer plus producer surplus). She stresses that it would beneficially:
- Make efficiencies more broadly cognizable, capturing cost reductions not passed through in the short run;
- Better enable the agencies to consider multi-market effects (whether consumer welfare gains in one market swamp consumer welfare losses in another market); and
- Better capture dynamic efficiencies (such as firm-specific efficiencies that are emulated by other “copycat” firms in the market).
Hovenkamp and Wilson point to the fact that efficiency-enhancing business conduct often has positive ramifications for both consumers and producers. As such, a CWS that focuses narrowly on short-term consumer surplus may prompt antitrust challenges to conduct that, properly understood, will prove beneficial to both consumers and producers over time.
With this in mind, I will now suggest four general “framework principles” to inform a CWS analysis that properly accounts for innovation and dynamic factors. These principles are tentative and merely suggestive, intended to prompt a further dialogue on CWS among interested commentators. (Also, many practical details will need to be filled in, based on further analysis.)
- Enforcers should consider all effects on consumer welfare in evaluating a transaction. Under the rule of reason, a reduction in surplus to particular defined consumers should not condemn a business practice (merger or non-merger) if other consumers are likely to enjoy accretions to surplus and if aggregate consumer surplus appears unlikely to decline, on net, due to the practice. Surplus need not be quantified—the likely direction of change in surplus is all that is required. In other words, “actual welfare balancing” is not required, consistent with the practical impossibility of quantifying new welfare effects in almost all cases (see, e.g., Hovenkamp, here). This principle is unaffected by market definition—all affected consumers should be assessed, whether they are “in” or “out” of a hypothesized market.
- Vertical intellectual-property-licensing contracts should not be subject to antitrust scrutiny unless there is substantial evidence that they are being used to facilitate horizontal collusion. This principle draws on the “New Madison Approach” associated with former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim. It applies to a set of practices that further the interests of both consumers and producers. Vertical IP licensing (particularly patent licensing) “is highly important to the dynamic and efficient dissemination of new technologies throughout the economy, which, in turn, promotes innovation and increased welfare (consumer and producer surplus).” (See here, for example.) The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ refusal to condemn Qualcomm’s patent-licensing contracts (which had been challenged by the FTC) is consistent with this principle; it “evinces a refusal to find anticompetitive harm in licensing markets without hard empirical support.” (See here.)
- Furthermore, enforcers should carefully assess the ability of “non-standard” commercial contracts—horizontal and vertical—to overcome market failures, as described by transaction-cost economics (see here, and here, for example). Non-standard contracts may be designed to deal with problems (for instance) of contractual incompleteness and opportunism that stymie efforts to advance new commercial opportunities. To the extent that such contracts create opportunities for transactions that expand or enhance market offerings, they generate new consumer surplus (new or “shifted out” demand curves) and enhance consumer welfare. Thus, they should enjoy a general (though rebuttable) presumption of legality.
- Fourth, and most fundamentally, enforcers should take account of cost-benefit analysis, rooted in error-cost considerations, in their enforcement initiatives, in order to further consumer welfare. As I have previously written:
Assuming that one views modern antitrust enforcement as an exercise in consumer welfare maximization, what does that tell us about optimal antitrust enforcement policy design? In order to maximize welfare, enforcers must have an understanding of – and seek to maximize the difference between – the aggregate costs and benefits that are likely to flow from their policies. It therefore follows that cost-benefit analysis should be applied to antitrust enforcement design. Specifically, antitrust enforcers first should ensure that the rules they propagate create net welfare benefits. Next, they should (to the extent possible) seek to calibrate those rules so as to maximize net welfare. (Significantly, Federal Trade Commissioner Josh Wright also has highlighted the merits of utilizing cost-benefit analysis in the work of the FTC.) [Eight specific suggestions for implementing cost-beneficial antitrust evaluations are then put forth in this article.]
One must hope that efforts to eliminate consumer welfare as the focal point of U.S. antitrust will fail. But even if they do, market-oriented commentators should be alert to any efforts to “hijack” the CWS by interventionist market-skeptical scholars. A particular threat may involve efforts to define the CWS as merely involving short-term consumer surplus maximization in narrowly defined markets. Such efforts could, if successful, justify highly interventionist enforcement protocols deployed against a wide variety of efficient (though too often mischaracterized) business practices.
To counter interventionist antitrust proposals, it is important to demonstrate that claims of faltering competition and inadequate antitrust enforcement under current norms simply are inaccurate. Such an effort, though necessary, is not enough.
In order to win the day, it will be important for market mavens to explain that novel business practices aimed at promoting producer surplus tend to increase consumer surplus as well. That is because efficiency-enhancing stratagems (often embodied in restrictive IP-licensing agreements and non-standard contracts) that further innovation and overcome transaction-cost difficulties frequently pave the way for innovation and the dissemination of new technologies throughout the economy. Those effects, in turn, expand and create new market opportunities, yielding huge additions to consumer surplus—accretions that swamp short-term static effects.
Enlightened enforcers should apply enforcement protocols that allow such benefits to be taken into account. They should also focus on the interests of all consumers affected by a practice, not just a narrow subset of targeted potentially “harmed” consumers. Finally, public officials should view their enforcement mission through a cost-benefit lens, which is designed to promote welfare.