Monopoly is capitalism’s gerrymander

Handcuffs for the invisible hand.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readMay 18, 2024

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You don’t have to accept the arguments of capitalism’s defenders to take those arguments seriously. When Adam Smith railed against rentiers and elevated the profit motive to a means of converting the intrinsic selfishness of the wealthy into an engine of production, he had a point:

Smith — like Marx and Engels in Chapter One of The Communist Manifesto — saw competition as a catalyst that could convert selfishness to the public good: a rich person who craves more riches still will treat their customers, suppliers and workers well, not out of the goodness of their heart, but out of fear of their defection to a rival:

This starting point is imperfect, but it’s not wrong. The pre-enshittified internet was run by the same people who later came to enshittify it. They didn’t have a change of heart that caused them to wreck the thing they’d worked so hard to build: rather, as they became isolated from the consequences of their enshittificatory impulses, it was easier to yield to them.

Once Google captured its market, its regulators and its workforce, it no longer had to worry about being a good search-engine — it could sacrifice quality for profits, without consequence:

It could focus on shifting value from its suppliers, its customers and its users to its shareholders:

The thing is, all of this is well understood and predicted by traditional capitalist orthodoxy. It was only after a gnostic cult of conspiratorialists hijacked the practice of antitrust law that capitalists started to view monopolies as compatible with capitalism:

The argument goes like this: companies that attain monopolies might be cheating, but because markets are actually pretty excellent arbiters of quality, it’s far more likely that if we discover that everyone is buying the same product from the same store, that this is the best store, selling the best products. How perverse would it be to shut down the very best stores and halt the sale of the very best products merely to satisfy some doctrinal reflex against big business!

To understand the problem with this argument, we should consider another doctrinal reflex: conservatives’ insistence that governments just can’t do anything well or efficiently. There’s a low-information version of this that goes, “Governments are where stupid people who can’t get private sector jobs go. They’re lazy and entitled.” (There’s a racial dimension to this, since the federal government has historically led the private sector in hiring and promoting Black workers and workers of color more broadly.)

But beyond that racially tinged caricature, there’s a more rigorous version of the argument: government officials are unlikely to face consequences for failure. Appointees and government employees — especially in the unionized federal workforce — are insulated from such consequences by overlapping layers of labor protection and deflection of blame.

Elected officials can in theory be fired in the next election, but if they keep their cheating or incompetence below a certain threshold, most of us won’t punish them at the polls. Elected officials can further improve their odds of re-election by cheating some of us and sharing the loot with others, through handouts and programs. Elections themselves have a strong incumbency bias, meaning that once a cheater gets elected, they will likely get re-elected, even if their cheating becomes well-known:

What’s more, electoral redistricting opens the doors to gerrymandering — designing districts to create safe seats where one party always wins. That way, the real election consists of the official choosing the voters, not the voters choosing the official:

Inter-party elections — primaries and other nomination processes — have fundamental weaknesses that mean they’re no substitute for well-run, democratic elections:

Contrast this with the theory of competitive markets. For capitalism’s “moral philosophers,” the physics by which greedy desires led to altruistic outcomes was to be found in the swift retribution of markets. A capitalist, exposed to the possibility of worker and customers defecting to their rival, knows that their greed is best served by playing fair.

But just as importantly, capitalists who don’t internalize this lesson are put out of business and superceded by better capitalists. The market’s invisible hand can pat you on the head — but it can also choke you to death.

This is where monopoly comes in. Even if you accept the consumer welfare theory that says that monopolies are most often the result of excellence, we should still break up monopolies. Even if someone secures an advantage by being great, that greatness will soon regress to the mean. But if the monopolist can extinguish the possibility of competition, they can maintain their power even after they cease deserving it.

In other words, the monopolist is like a politician who wins power — whether through greatness or by deceit — and then gerrymanders their district so that they can do anything and gain re-election. Even the noblest politician, shorn of accountability, will be hard pressed to avoid yielding to temptation.

Capitalism’s theory proceeds from the idea that we are driven by our self-interest, and that competition turns self-interest into communal sentiment. Take away the competition, and all that’s left is the self-interest.

I think this is broadly true, even though it’s not the main reason I oppose monopolies (I oppose monopolies because they corrupt our democracy and pauperize workers). But even if capitalism’s ability to turn greed into public benefit isn’t the principle that’s uppermost in my mind, it’s what capitalists claim to believe — and treasure.

I think that most of the right’s defense of monopolies stems from cynical, bad-faith rationalizations — but there are people who’ve absorbed these rationalizations and find them superficially plausible. It’s worth developing these critiques, for their sake.

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