Podcasting “We Should Not Endure a King”
This week on my podcast, I read my Medium column “We Should Not Endure a King: Antitrust is a political cause, not an economic one,” an essay addressed to my fellow leftists who are skeptical of antitrust as a “market” solution.
It’s a perfectly reasonable fear. For the past four decades, the entire antitrust discourse has been about economics — about when a company’s anticompetitive conduct is “inefficient,” based on some complex mathematical formula.
But that’s not how antitrust works, it’s how it was made to fail. Antitrust has its origins in politics, not economics. When Senator John Sherman (of “Sherman Act” fame) exhorted his fellow senators to pass his bill, he said, “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 with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.”
Sherman was responding not to the economic power of the robber barons, but their political power — not their ability to decide what to buy and sell, but to decide how millions of people lived their lives. He understood that the robber barons had usurped the power of democratically accountable legislatures, and, moreover, had set themselves against democracy itself.
Monopolists are, by definition, a small group of people with a lot of money. The smaller the group, the easier it is for them to find consensus, and when that small group is rich, they can put that consensus into motion. Money is power, after all, so when all the money is in a very small number of hands, then so is all the power.
The ability of oligarchs to usurp the power of the state is hardly controversial. Thomas Jefferson was furious that his proposal to put antitrust in the Bill of Rights was struck down, because he felt that democratic governance would not survive the assault of concentrated private power: