At the FTC, a quiet, profound shift on antitrust

Listening to “those who have experienced firsthand the effects of mergers and acquisitions beyond antitrust experts.”

Cory Doctorow


Norman Rockwell’s WPA painting ‘Freedom of Speech,’ depicting a working-class speaker rising to speak in a white-collar crowd at a town meeting.

Sometimes, a tiny change in the political process comes along that makes you realize just how far things have come — a change that’s both substantive and symbolic. Something like this terse, six-paragraph memo from the FTC, a deceptively anodyne wrapper for an explosive moment:

Here’s the crux: “The FTC and DOJ will host a series of listening forums to hear from those who have experienced firsthand the effects of mergers and acquisitions beyond antitrust experts, including consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, start-ups, farmers, investors, and independent businesses.”

If you aren’t chest-deep in weird antitrust lore, this probably seems like it’s par for the course. But believe me, this is a hell of a moment — a moment of restoration, a return to a vital, long-dormant principle in American governance: the idea that corporations should not be allowed to ruin the lives of the people around them.

This was the idea behind antitrust in the first place. As Senator John Sherman said to Congress as he labored to pass his landmark antitrust law in 1890: “If we will not endure a King as a political power we should not endure a King over the production, transportation, and sale of the necessaries of life.”

“If we would not submit to an emperor we should not submit to an autocrat of trade.”

This was the foundation of American antitrust: the idea that companies of a certain scale would, by dint of that size, be in a position to exercise the autocratic control of a monarch, and return America to a tyrannical monarchy cloaked in the pretense of industry.

For nearly a century, this was the bedrock of antitrust enforcement, the idea of “harmful dominance” — that companies could attain a scale that made them a danger to the very idea of democratic control and…