More restraint is in order when it comes to the Obama administrations intent to escalate “antitrust” enforcement against business and enterprise in America.
A skeptical interpretation of antitrust’s realities—up to and including recent campaigns targeting Intel, Google, XM-Sirius; and earlier campaigns against Microsoft and the AOL Time Warner merger, as well as rejected mergers like Echostar/DirecTV—is that antitrust often advances the well being of various species of political predators rather than consumers.
Antitrust is a form of economic regulation. And like all economic regulation, it transfers wealth from somebody to somebody else, often in response to special-interest urging. Partly in recognition of such shortcomings, many economic sectors like transportation and telecommunications were (partly) deregulated and liberalized during the last quarter of the 20th century. But antitrust regulation typically gets a pass. Even in the “new economy,” this century-old smokestack era concept is used to justify constraints and conditions imposed on vigorously competitive modern companies. Antitrust is wrongly seen as being in the public interest, as having a superior role to play in policing markets relative to the alternatives.
In antitrust cases, targeted companies’ rivals have a direct financial interest in the outcome. Appeals to antitrust as a public interest law do not change the fact that private motives of rivals, and even ambitious enforcers, are not simply lurking in the background, but running the show. The idea that antitrust helps consumers and that it has a role to play in the new economy deserves reexamination and challenge.
Under antitrust law, a laundry list of business practices (tying, bundling, discrimination, exclusive deals, and so on) are regarded suspiciously, some outlawed altogether. But business transactions are fundamentally voluntary, non-coercive dealings—unlike the forced antitrust interventions that rivals often seek. From this fresh perspective, one finds that even the most “despised” business behaviors—even collusion and mega-mergers—can be pro-competitive and pro-consumer. To the extent that antitrust regulation strikes down practices that have misunderstood or ignored efficiency justifications, especially in an information-based economy, individuals and society are made unnecessarily poorer.
The list of vilified business practices is long, but needn’t be, and we often try to explain why. If anyone cares about economic recovery and jobs, today’s aim should be to “deregulate to stimulate,” so a list of vilified trustbuster practices would be far more advantageous to consumers.