Anti-trust laws

Here Murry Rothbard explains some of the false ideas how cartels or monopolies are thought to arise on the free-market.


 

Here is a paper that I wrote back in 2008 about anti-trust laws.  This paper is largely based on Chicago School economics and Randian ideas because it was before I discovered the Austrian School of economics.  That being said, this paper still largely fits into my understanding of anti-trust laws today except that it is likely not radical enough (I would also cite much better economists).  It seems to me that Anti-trust laws are more often used by industry with government insiders to squash competition.  High minded misguided government bureucrats are much less dangerous than the lobbyists and the influence that big industry has within the government.   Paid off bureaucrats are much more dangerous than idealistic bureaucrats. 

A brief summery if you do not feel like reading the whole thing: Strike all anti-trust laws from the books, they are both immoral and economically destructive.

Antitrust

 A Tale of Government Economic Destruction

With the rise of the industrial revolution, many people started observing new economic trends.  Businesses were beginning to consolidate through “trusts” that allowed them to grow to unprecedented size.  Whole industries started to come under control of a single company.  Many people believed that the free market, originally thought to protect free competition, was now destroying it through monopolistic practices.  The Standard Oil Company is the most famous example of this.  The Standard Oil Company eventually acquired almost ninety percent of the oil market in the United States.  The company was so massive that it was able to own every stage of production, from when it was pumped from the ground, to refining, to packaging and shipping.  This massive company was able to cut its operating costs so much that no other company could compete..  The rise of industry and large national companies like Standard Oil in the late 19th century coincided with the rise of different social movements as well. 

Emmanuel Kant started a new school in philosophy in response to the Age of Enlightenment.  His philosophy primarily rested on the idea that “reason” was unreliable in the goal of saving the traditional form of morality of altruism (Peikoff, 75).  By the middle of the 19th century Kantian philosophic principles were becoming the dominating ideas in European Universities. These rival schools of thought rose in the Germanic states in Europe in opposition to the British Enlightenment philosophers (Peikoff, 117).   More philosophers, continuing Kant’s moral philosophic principles of duty, sacrifice, and social benefit, became the primary thinkers of the main schools of thought in Europe.  Karl Marx was one of the leading thinkers on “social morality”(Peikoff, 64).  He was the first person to coin the term “capitalist” and described it as a person that benefits from someone else’s labor (Lorenzo, 1).  The laborer themselves do not draw any benefit or profit, just mere subsistence in the Marxist view.  This social philosophy spread very quickly because of the philosophic foundations laid by Emmanuel Kant and his philosophic heirs.         

As Socialist and Communist ideas started to dominate the European intellectual establishment, they began to spread to America as well.  The idea that man was an individual working in a free society for his own happiness was undercut by ideas that man was merely an exploited tool for use by the capitalists.  These ideas gave eventually rise to a larger social movements that aimed to “stop the common man from being exploited.” The political response to placate this new populist movement was antitrust laws.   

 Antitrust laws have been the corner stone of American economic policy for over a hundred years.  Though the lax antitrust enforcement over the last thirty years has been enormously beneficial for the economy, the recent economic crisis has brought panic to the people and politicians of the United States, which will likely lead to many interventionist and strong antitrust policies by the Federal Government.   These panic driven moves to manipulate the market with antitrust laws are destined to end in failure and must be avoided.  The only ethical course of action is to repeal antitrust laws because they are not practical, they hurt the consumer, and they make the economy less productive.   

 First there is no practical economic or legal definition of a monopoly. Under antitrust laws, any business can be a monopoly and any businessman is a potential criminal.  Ayn Rand, political philosopher and commentator describes antitrust laws.  

 “Under the Antitrust laws, a man becomes a criminal from the moment he goes into business, no matter what he does. For instance, if he charges prices which some bureaucrats judge as too high, he can be prosecuted for monopoly or for a successful “intent to monopolize”; if he charges prices lower than those of his competitors, he can be prosecuted for “unfair competition” or “restraint of trade”; and if he charges the same prices as his competitors, he can be prosecuted for “collusion” or “conspiracy””(Rand, The Objective News Letter, 1)

  The fact that antitrust laws can be so easily be interpreted to mean almost anything is unethical in itself and is one of the strongest reasons why antitrust laws should be repealed.

            Alan Greenspan also describes antitrust laws:

  “The world of antitrust laws is reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland:  everything seemingly is, yet apparently isn’t, simultaneously.  It is a world in which competition is lauded as the basic axiom and guiding principle, yet “too much” competition is condemned as “cutthroat.”  It is a world in which actions designed to limit competition are branded as criminal when taken by businessmen, yet praised as “enlightened” when initiated by the government.  It is a world in which the law is so vague that businessmen have no way of knowing whether specific actions will be declared illegal until they hear the judge’s verdict- after the fact”(Greenpan, Antitrust, Capitalism:  The Unknown Ideal).

 

Historian Wyatt Wells wrote an interesting work titled Antitrust and the Formation of the Postwar World where he puts forward the idea that antitrust laws are an effective tool against trusts.  His work focuses on antitrust on a global scale, especially how the U.S. pushed its economic view of antitrust on post World War II Europe and Japan.  Wells’ main focus is on how Cartels were considered a “social good” by many Europeans, while Americans were largely apprehensive about such concentrations of private power in industry.  Wells, throughout his book, works on the assumption that Cartels reduce competition, raise prices, and are largely negative.  This largely assumed proposition lacks some critical arguments that much of his concluding ideas rests.  One area of critical importance is how European “Cartels” and American “Monopolies” differ.  Wells makes the statement that there was a large drive in Europe to have the national state direct the economy after World War I.  It was considered as much of moral question as the practical allocation of resources (because of Kantian and Marxist philosophic dominance).   This meant that for many of the thinkers in Europe, Adam Smith’s free market economics was out.(Wells, 5)   This is a critical area that Wells does not address, European Cartels were largely state sponsored for the “social good” while American monopolies were much more likely to come about naturally in the free market. The question that Wells fails to ask is whether all large “monopolies” restrict competition or whether it takes government policies and state sponsorship to restrict competition.  The truth that Wells does not mention is government interference and power is the only way to create a true monopoly that really does harm the consumer for others benefit.  Examples of this can be seen throughout history from government control of phone companies, to public utilities, and even railroad companies in the 19th century.  As historian Dominick Armentano puts it:

 “Antitrust policy in Americas’ a misleading myth that has served to draw public attention away from the actual process of monopolization that has been occurring throughout the economy.  The general public has been deluded into believing that monopoly is a free-market problem, and that the government, through antitrust enforcement, is on the side of the “angles.”  The facts are exactly the opposite.  Antitrust… served as a convenient cover for an insidious process of monopolization in the market place”(qtd. In Dilorenzo, 154 )

The way that Wells glosses over state monopolies for the “social good” as being negative but antitrust laws for the “social good” as positive is a messy contradiction.  In both situations, the government chooses “winners and losers” in the business world.  This makes interpretation of antitrust laws still more confusing and impractical. 

Wells himself seems to state how confusing antitrust laws are but seems to blame that confusion on the public while still holding his benevolent attitude towards the impractical laws, “Americans are too often ignorant of how and why their institutions work.  Antitrust has improved the performance of the U.S.economy, largely by suppressing cartels”(Wells, 216).  This vague statement about the importance of antitrust laws is soon modified by Wells when he asserts that Americans “huge market, stable government, and strong currency made the risks of competition manageable”(Wells, 216). This is an outright contradiction by stating that competition is usually bad and needs to be managed while asserting at the same time that antitrust laws encourage competition and help the economy.  Such a contradiction seems to be an admission that antitrust laws have no practical objective interpretation.   Wells seems aware of his contradiction but surprisingly does not try to remedy it by openly stating that “antitrust statutes rest on a paradox” in his concluding paragraph (Wells, 216).  An argument that contains a contradiction or “rests on a paradox” is not an argument and should be rejected because is violates the laws of reason.  Wells continues down the same irrational thought experiment without hesitation.  He tries to make a compromise that firms have to have the capital to compete for antitrust laws to be effective.  This opens up another flaw in his argument by plainly stating that antitrust laws destroy available capital.  In an era when huge amounts of capital are needed to make things like computer software, large companies are needed for such huge investments.  Antitrust laws seek to break up companies to increase competition but these smaller companies might not be able to raise the needed capital because of their reduced size.  Thus capital is a requirement for business and therefore large trusts must be allowed to exist to raise the needed resources.  None of Wells’ arguments for antitrust laws rest on any objective standard.  The confusion surrounding the interpretation, method, and use such laws is really that irrational but that is how their most ardent supporters defend antitrust laws.  Even those that are for antitrust laws can’t seem to come up with a practical way of defining them.   As Greenspan put it in his famous essay “Antitrust: “To sum up:  the entire structure of antitrust statutes in this country is a jumble of economic irrationality and ignorance.  It is the product: a) of gross misinterpretation of history, and b) of rather naïve, and certainly unrealistic, economic theories (Greenspan, 71).  Antitrust simply has no practical or objective interpretation.

The next area of importance is how antitrust laws are not only impractical but hurt the consumer as well. Standard Oil is the text book example that every social progressive and socialist uses to demonstrate the evils of “monopolistic power.” Edwin Rockefeller of the Cato institute puts forward that from the 1890s to today, Standard Oil is the example of the destructive power of monopolies.  “Belief in antitrust begins with the Standard Oil legend.  Antitrust believers are opposed to what the Standard Oil trust is believed to have done.  Antiturst is anti Standard Oil trust”( Rockefeller, 48).   The Standard Oil example, when examined completely, does not support any of the principles that a “monopoly” harms the consumer.   Rockefeller writes about how antitrust laws are unneeded and unjust. Rockefeller makes a strong argument that anti-trust laws were used politically to placate the voting public, though they have no clear intention or practical interpretation (Rockefeller, 47).   

Rockefeller points to the beginning of anti-trust laws, The Sherman Antitrust act, and how it was used to target Standard Oil.  To understand why “monopolies” do not hurt the consumer it is critical to understand the Standard Oil case.      

Standard Oil is a good example of the anti-business sentiment of the time.    People worried that the lack of competition, created a monopoly in the oil industry.  This massive amount of private power was considered a problem by the social progressives.  Though there might be little evidence that Standard Oil, or similar large companies, used this massive amount of private power malevolently, that fact that they potentially could was enough for the social progressives.  Thus, the social progressives and socialists alike believed that antitrust laws were the only way to protect fair competition and curb what they considered as “too much private power” that they thought hurt the consumer.  Finally Standard Oil was broken up by antitrust laws by the social progressives of the time. 

 It is common assumption among social progressives, as well as most common people, that one company controlling an entire economic sector is a very negative for society and the consumer.  Intuitively, this makes sense. When only one company is supplying a certain product, they can charge what ever price they want for it because there is no competition. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a widely held belief among progressives that as companies became larger, peoples’ freedom’s become less (qtd. in Lloyd, 182).  It was believed that every product needed for daily life had to be bought from huge corporations that the consumer did not have a say in (qtd. in Lloyd, 182).  A social progressive at the time wrote, “There is no longer the fact of competition.  The protection of the public as laborers, producers, consumers by competition has come to an end.  We go to the market but no longer as free men”(183).  The same writer describes how coal producers charge an average of one dollar more per ton that fair competitive market price.  “You pay it under compulsion: you must have the coal” (Lloyed, 183). The social progressives of that period and the majority of American people have believed for over a hundred years that the people have to be protected from such “monopolistic power.”  The political solution to such monopolistic power was antirust laws. These assumptions about the nature of monopolistic power are in fact false; large corporations actually benefit the consumer. 

To gain full appreciation of consumer benefit, the Standard Oil case it must be examined in its entirety.  Standard Oil rose to prominence at a time when oil pumped from the earth could be used as an energy source for kerosene lamps (cars were not invented yet).  Before this people burned whale oil, which was extremely expensive and only the rich could afford.  Standard Oil literally brought light to the world by giving the common man access to cheap oil.  This in itself is benefit but many still think that Standard Oil pushed out the “little guy” but this too is exaggerated by antitrust proponents. 

Standard Oil was gradually able to gain control the industry by buying up other rival companies.  The people of these companies more often than not were kept on by Standard Oil, especially if they were seen as talented.  It was a mutual benefit for both. The rival companies no longer had to compete against the much more efficient Standard Oil and Standard Oil was able to use these rival companies capital, resources, and talent to make their production of oil even more efficient.  For social progressives to label Standard Oil’s rise to power as “mean spirited” and “evil” is utterly false.  It happened to everyone’s benefit, including the consumer.

  Though some competitors may have lost out, the big winners were the consumer.  Rockefeller makes the point that “at the peak of Standard’s supposed dominance of the industry, the costs and prices for refined oil reached their lowest levels in the history of the petroleum industry”(49).  Economic historian Thomas DiLorenzo is also of similar agreement, “there never was any evidence that the trusts and combinations of the late nineteenth century actually harmed consumers in the way that restrict production to drive up prices”(DiLorenzo qtd in Rockefeller, 49).  DiLorenzo also stated in his book How Capitalism Saved America that, “the charge that the trusts “victimized consumers by raising prices” is sheer nonsense.  The trusts’ efficiencies and economies of scales enabled them to lower prices for consumers.” Dilorenzo goes on to say:  “even if the charge is that the trusts practiced predatory pricing first cutting prices below costs to drive out all rivals and then raising prices once the competition is eliminated- that is still nonsense… it is illogical and foolish as a business practice; moreover, it has never been established that a real-life monopoly has ever been formed in this way” (Dilorenzo, 138).    Though Dilorenzo and Rockefeller demonstrate strong evidence that price gouging by trusts is a historic myth, there is still a large following that the consumer was “taken advantage of”, even in the academic world of today

A good modern example of the need for massive corporations to raise capital to make products that benefit the consumer is Microsoft.  The growth of the personal computer industry and the access to it by almost every American is a direct result of Microsoft’s innovations.  Alan Greenspan, economist and retired Fed Chairmen, describes “natural monopolies”, antitrust laws, and the need for capital in his autobiography The Age of Turbulence.   “The high cost of developing software and the negligible production and, if online, distribution costs tend to suggest a natural monopoly- a good or service that is supplied most efficiently by one firm” (493).  Thus, if one company can bring a product to the market that nobody else can match, this does not hurt the consumer but help.  Antitrust break up of that company can only lead to higher prices.   Greenspan also discusses Microsoft’s natural monopoly, “Windows operating system has been eroded by competition from Apple and open-source Linux.  Natural monopolies, in the end, are displaced by technological breakthroughs and new paradigms”(494).  Not only is it impossible to maintain a monopoly when better consumer goods are brought to the market but monopolies themselves are short lived in a free market as well.   Greenspan finishes by discussing monopolies in the 20th and 21st century.  Greenspan goes on to describe how anti-trust laws have never been effective at promoting competition and will be totally out of date in the 21st century.  In the end, the consumer needs large industries to produce products at affordable prices. Antitrust laws can only hurt consumers when used.   

Unfortunately, even though prominent economists like Alan Greenspan describe the benefit of natural monopolies and free market economics, most politicians seem to ignore them.  Throughout the 20th century governments have interfered in economic activities for the greater good and general health of the economy.  Theodore Roosevelt’s “trust busting”, FDR’s “New Deal”, Nixon’s price controls, and the breakup of “monopolies” throughout the century are pointed too by progressives on how government intervention has worked.  This view of government intervention is totally false and has actually hurt economic progress.

 The examples of the destructive power of antitrust laws are so numerous it is irrational to ignore them.  John Steele Gordon, of Forbes Magazine, wrote a response to the justice departments targeting of Microsoft with antitrust laws in the 1990s.  He goes over case after case on how antitrust has destroyed companies and have hurt the economy in the progress.  IBM was the dominate computer company in 1969, controlling over 65% of the computer market.  The Department of Justice targeted IBM to have it dismantled because to was pushing out its competitors.  The legal battle lasted for thirteen years that almost destroyed the company.  Apple and Intel began to dominate the processor market and by 1982 and IBM had to lay off thousands of employees because of the massive amount of legal fees (Gordon 1).  The justice department finally dropped its case because it was obvious that IBM no longer had control of the computer market.  The horror stories of antitrust laws continue when the Department of Justice forced Schwinn Bicycle Co. “to lessen its grip on bicycle dealers” that eventually that eventually led to bankruptcy in 1992 from rising foreign competition. (Gordon, 1).  He goes on to talk about the mere threat of antitrust can do disastrous harm to an industry.   GM, for example, never suffered an antitrust attack but it feared it so much that its official company policy was to never raise its market share above 45% (Gordon, 1).  As a result GM never attempted to reduce costs or improve technology to raise its market share.  The Japanese entrance into the auto market in the 1980s was a death blow to the automotive giant that could only be saved by government intervention.  Gordon continues with case after case in Forbes about the destructive results of antitrust suits.  Such a history should make it obvious to any observer that antitrust laws are a completely destructive force in theU.S.economy.     

Fortunately, the rise of the Chicago School of Economics has changed many people’s views, including politicians, on the value of the free market.  Since Carter through Clinton, there was a large push to deregulate businesses and allow them to grow without the threat of antitrust laws generally. Chicagoschool became the dominant school of economics by the 1980’s, displacing the Harvard school of economics according to an article written by Kenneth Jost.  Jost explains how Bork and Richard Posner became the dominate thinkers of the Chicago school.  Posner wrote a books that stressed that “competition was a means to an end—efficiency—rather than an end in itself”( Jost, p2).  In other words, lack of competition in a certain sector is not a negative thing as long production in that sector is more efficient than if there were multiple competitors.  This increased efficiency benefits the overall economy.    

Though progressives and government interventions often concede that government involvement in economics is complex system, they firmly stand by government economic involvement as a modern necessity to promote economic health.  Many have pointed too the latest economic crises as an example for the need of government regulation, especially “trust busting”.  Many believe that these massive companies could have been broken up into smaller companies with antitrust laws.  They believe that because these companies grew so large that they had to be bailed out with U.S.taxes dollars.  Many government interventionists believe, if the size of any one company becomes so great and its bankruptcy or mismanagement becomes a threat to the entire economic system, it must be broken up for the social good.  Now they claim the government has to useU.S.tax dollars to remedy a situation that should have never happened in the first place if antitrust laws were used effectively.  Although this is a strong point it rests on some false assumptions. 

The biggest false assumption is that it was out of control greed by business that led to economic collapse.  It was government intervention in the first place that led to such devastation.  The Federal Government has been forcing banks to issue loans to risky borrowers. An example of this was President Bush’s campaign to have every American become a home owner (Stossel). This policy has led to the housing crisis because of the large number of unqualified buyers defaulting on such loans.  The fact that these businesses are on the verge of failure is the direct result of government intervention, not unrestrained business.  The next misnomer is that a company is “too big too fail.”  Failure is the only way an economy can correct itself. A government bailout merely shifts money from a productive side of the economy to support the unproductive, only prolonging the rescission (Stossel, video).  Using antitrust laws to fix the economy is misguided; it only uses the same government intervention that helped harm the economy in the first place.    

Google is the best concluding example of how antitrust laws are wrong in so many different ways.  Google has created a persona through its entire history as “being the good guys” by giving people access to information.  Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin conceived their company as a kind of public trust: “We believe a well-functioning society should have abundant, free, and unbiased access to high-quality information…. a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good” (Vogelstein, 1). This has also been the view that most techies share as well.    Fred Vogelstein, writer for Wired Magazine describes Google historic success: “after all, the company’s rise to prominence—on the back of search algorithms so powerful and elegant they changed the Internet forever—is a case study in heroic entrepreneurialism. It routinely creates and distributes great products for free, even when there is no obvious benefit to the company(Vogelstein, 1)”.  He goes on to say: “Its spirit of openness and collaboration laid the groundwork for the mash-upable, user-generated modern Web”(Vogelstein, 1) This vision of Google unfortunately is not held by the United States Justice Department. They have targeted Google with a number of antitrust laws.

The worst part of Google’s antitrust case (and most other antitrust cases), is that they are providing a service that people desire.  For example, the Department of Justice is looking into Google’s book scanning project, which seeks to make searchable every published book on Google.  Depending on copyright laws, some of these books will be able to read in full or in part for free and others books users will be able to read for a fee. (Vogelstein 1)  This is one of the greatest projects in history. The ability for people to access all of human civilization’s knowledge from a single computer is an amazing prospect.  Unfortunately, the DOJ does not think so.

  It gets worse from there when considering what Google wants to do with wireless Internet.  Google wants to bring free broadband to San Francisco and eventually every U.S.city. The only thing standing in Google’s way is government regulation and antitrust laws.  Hannibal Travis of Florida International School of Law, describes the issue, “Cheap, ubiquitous high-speed Internet access promises to accelerate economic growth, create new jobs and industries, advance education and lifelong learning, inform and improve health care decision-making, and raise living standards. Conversely, foregone broadband access by low income and other under served Americans is imposing high economic and social costs. As much as $1 trillion in economic growth may be delayed due to structural and legal limitations on U.S.broadband access”(Travis,1).  Google’s business plan would be an obvious huge advantage for the public and the economy in general but once again the U.S.government, with its antitrust regulations, stand in the way. 

Antitrust laws are unethical political tools that have no practical objective interpretation, harm consumers with high prices and inferior products, and reduce economic efficiency.  The only ethical solution to such unjust laws is to completely repeal them.  The only moral economic system that protects individual rights is complete laissez-faire capitalism.  The repeal of antitrust laws would set American course to have a new economic Renaissance.   

Works Cited 

DiLorenzo, Thomas.  How Capitalism Saved America. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2004. Print.

Greenspan, Alan.  “Antitrust” Barrons, February 5th1962 Rpt. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Ed. Ayn Rand. New York: Penguin Group, 1969.  Print

Greenspan, Alan.  The Age of Turbulence, Adventures in a New World. New York: Penguin Group, 2007.  Print.

Gordon, John Steele.  “Read Your History Janet”. Forbes. Febuary 23, 1998.  Accessed 9/28/09.  Web

Jost, Kenneth.  “Antitrust Policy, Should more be done to Promote Competition: Chicago School” CQ Researcher (12 June 1998): 505-528 . CQ Researcher Online. Criss Lib., U of Nebraska-Omaha. Web.  http://library.cqpress.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu

Peikoff, Leonard.  The Ominous Parallels.  New York: Meridian, 1982.  Print

Rand, Ayn. “Choose Your Issues,” The Objective Newsletter, Jan. 1962, p 1.  Accessed 7/31/09. Web http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/antitrust_laws.html

Rockefeller, Edwin S.  The Antitrust Religion.WashingtonDC: Cato Institute, 2007.  Print

Stossel, John.  “Bailouts and Bull” 20/20 Episode 112.  ABC: aired Febuary 13, 2009.  Accessed 7/26/2009.  http://vp2.abc.go.com/watch/2020/166626/188472/2020-the-big-bad-bailout.  Web. 

Travis, Hannibal. “Wi-Fi Everywhere: Universal Broadband Access as Antitrust and Telecommunications Policy” AmericanUniversityLaw Review, Vol. 55 pp. 1697-1800, August 2006. Accessed July 28, 2009. Web

“Uses and Abuses of Corporations.” Liberal Club, BuffaloN.Y.1894. Rpt. In Lords of Industry. Ed. Lauda Furman. Lloyd, Henry Demarest. New York:Arno Press, 1973. Print

 Vogelstein, Fred.  “Why is Obama’s Top Antitrust Cop Gunning For Google”, Wired Magazine 7/20/09 accessed 9/27/09

 

 

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