Back when Republicans were responsible stewards of the public good, Teddy Roosevelt waged war on monopolies. He understood that the virtues of capitalism–and they are many–required government protection. American commerce was no longer characterized by small merchants and farmers competing on a more-or-less equal playing field, and that made it imperative to constrain the powerful from dominating the marketplace and squeezing out the little guys.
In a recent column, Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out that the problem of monopoly power is still with us, and still an enormous impediment to the proper working of a market economy:
In today’s economy, many sectors – telecoms, cable TV, digital branches from social media to Internet search, health insurance, pharmaceuticals, agro-business, and many more – cannot be understood through the lens of competition. In these sectors, what competition exists is oligopolistic, not the “pure” competition depicted in textbooks….
US President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, led by Jason Furman, has attempted to tally the extent of the increase in market concentration and some of its implications. In most industries, according to the CEA, standard metrics show large – and in some cases, dramatic – increases in market concentration. The top ten banks’ share of the deposit market, for example, increased from about 20% to 50% in just 30 years, from 1980 to 2010.
Some of the increase in market power is the result of changes in technology and economic structure: consider network economies and the growth of locally provided service-sector industries. Some is because firms – Microsoft and drug companies are good examples – have learned better how to erect and maintain entry barriers, often assisted by conservative political forces that justify lax anti-trust enforcement and the failure to limit market power on the grounds that markets are “naturally” competitive. And some of it reflects the naked abuse and leveraging of market power through the political process: Large banks, for example, lobbied the US Congress to amend or repeal legislation separating commercial banking from other areas of finance.
Bottom line lesson: government should be an “umpire,” ensuring a level playing field, rather than a member of the “team” that has most effectively used its greater resources to game the system and co-opt the process.
As Stiglitz notes, unequal distribution of power in the marketplace drives inequality and undermines democratic institutions. It’s hard to disagree with his conclusion:
If markets are fundamentally efficient and fair, there is little that even the best of governments could do to improve matters. But if markets are based on exploitation, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears. Indeed, in that case, the battle against entrenched power is not only a battle for democracy; it is also a battle for efficiency and shared prosperity.