BY ARJIT ROSHAN STAFF WRITER
A couple of weeks back, my friend and classmate Alex Madajian wrote a column discussing what he sees as our fruitless efforts to regulate and tax the wealthy. According to Alex, all of our efforts to reign in mega-firms only result in an unholy alliance between government and industry.
Alex offered the traditional market-oriented prescription:
“Even if we expand the government to punish the corrupt rich, they will only use their clout to create a climate which prohibits growth of their competitors. So why not subject the rich to more competition? If you really want to ‘eat the rich,’ force them to compete against each other. If society really is just class warfare, and the struggle is between the rich and the rest, the rich will win every time. So let the rich eat themselves.”
The narrative is simple. The public is incapable of holding the wealthy or industry accountable. Like Godzilla, we can’t stop these giants, so the best thing we can do is “let them fight.”
According to people that promulgate this narrative, deregulation makes markets more competitive, and competition will check corporate power, spur innovation and improve our living standards along the way. This theory is based on the assumption that the “free” marketplace is a cutthroat arena where firms are constantly trying to outwit and undermine one another, consumer preferences discipline businesses and competition keeps the rich pitted against one another.
In short, it is founded on a fiction.
Unregulated markets aren’t ones where the rich compete and “eat each other.” Left to their own devices, they work together to gobble up everything else.
Since the late ‘70s, following the prescriptions of free marketeers, we’ve adopted an approach to antitrust that is tolerant of monopoly power so long as “consumer welfare” isn’t measurably impacted in the form of higher prices. But rather than making the marketplace more competitive, deregulation has accomplished precisely the opposite.
Since then, the rate at which new firms enter the market has precipitously declined. The market share of the two largest companies in almost every industry has increased. We all know that Big Tech is dominated by giants like Facebook and Google, but the problem goes far beyond that. Amazon controls 75 percent of physical book sales and 65 percent of e-book sales online. Two firms control almost all of the dairy industry. Cascades of mergers and acquisitions have concentrated every sector from pharmaceuticals to defense contracting.
In some cases, like Big Pharma, market consolidation can be tied with skyrocketing prices. But for the most part, consumer welfare hasn’t been negatively impacted. Just as the Standard Oil monopoly actually lowered oil prices by exploiting economies of scale, market concentration today has mostly meant cheaper goods and services.
If we often benefit as consumers from monopolistic tendencies, why be worried? Why should we care that Walmart controls 72 percent of warehouse clubs and supercenters when for most of us that’s meant super cheap toiletries and snacks? Why would we even want to subject them to competition, as Alex suggests?
For one thing, while market concentration invariably helps capital and often translates to consumer gains, it’s been the bane of workers.
The fact that real wages have stagnated as markets have concentrated isn’t incidental. More monopolization means fewer firms to compete and bid up worker wages. The failure of work to pay decent wages is a result of a system where capital consolidates unimpeded, but workers face obstacles to unionization, creating a system where bargaining power is severely lopsided.
Aside from the negative impact on workers, there is the problem of accountability for large private entities. In theory, private entities have broad license to do as they please with their property. But that becomes untenable when they control critical materials and infrastructure. This was painfully obvious in 1902, when a dispute between coal miners and management resulted in a protracted strike that threatened to deprive the nation of coal in the winter months.
In a capitalist system, where essential commodities are privately owned, private decisions and disputes are often matters of public interest. During the strike, President Theodore Roosevelt found it necessary to intervene and mediate the dispute, and even had to consider the possibility of nationalizing the mines to avert a catastrophe.
Both then and now, laissez-faire is not a viable option.
We can turn our eyes to the best example of monopoly today. Today the tech giants have improved (or at least changed) our lives in many ways: goods are cheaper, we are more connected than ever, and we have all sorts of gadgets that make life better.
But if we don’t like how social media companies are designing deliberately addictive services, we are not empowered to punish them in the marketplace. When Twitter permanently removed President Trump from the site on Jan. 8, the market remedy would have been for him to migrate to another platform; in this case it would’ve been Parler. But Google Play and the App Store removed the Parler app; Amazon stopped hosting the site (notably, Parler brought a failed antitrust suit against them). It wasn’t until a few weeks back that Parler was able to find a smaller hosting service to bring it back online.
In markets, the nature of the goods as well as market concentration often limits our ability to hold private actors accountable by “voting with our dollars.” There is no “freedom of choice” for consumers if the firms to choose from are free to sell an addictive product, or are free to work together to limit options.
When we don’t somehow subjugate the private sector to the public interest, the opposite situation emerges. Today private entities are often charged with the responsibility of regulating our own public institutions.
Alex may think the better answer would be to expose them to more competition, but this would in fact require more regulation, not less. Not just removing barriers to entry but breaking up the biggest firms and barring many private entities from engaging in mergers and acquisitions — among the most intrusive government interventions into industry.
And in many cases these actions wouldn’t even be good for consumers. Would we be better off with 100 operating systems? These goods lend themselves to monopoly; competition doesn’t inherently improve the situation.
There is an elegant solution, but it rejects simple ideas like Alex’s. Where monopolies offer us large benefits through efficiencies or their nature as network goods, let them be — but make them accountable to all of us by regulating them as public utilities. Where we would benefit from competition, let the government enthusiastically apply antitrust legislation. Both solutions call for vigorous regulation, and non-market mechanisms to subject the private sector to the public interest.
Of course, this gives a lot of power to elected officials or even worse, unelected bureaucrats. There are plenty of problems with this, from regulatory capture to incentives for bribery and corruption. There are many instances — like in very competitive sectors — where private actors would be far more responsive to the public interest, and in those cases we should let markets do what they do best.
Public oversight and private discretion both have their advantages and dangers. It is naive to think only one system is vulnerable to corruption or abuse, and naive to think we should only choose one mechanism to promote the popular interest. Giving either the state or captains of industry excess power to shape our lives is antithetical to the ideals of a liberal society.
In the end, who we empower to shape different areas of our lives is, as with all things, a matter of trust.