America was born of rebellion against monopoly—over our souls, over our lands, over our commerce. Yet for most of 200 years Americans did a pretty good job of using local and state—and, later, federal—law to prevent the concentration of power over our markets and our selves.
The simplest way to effect a coup is not to change the law but to change how citizens perceive it. A generation ago, when a small crew within the Reagan administration set out to clear the way for a radical reconcentration of power, they did so not by openly assailing our antimonopoly laws but by altering the intellectual frames that guide how we enforce them.
Rather than aim at “competition,” the new goal was “efficiency.” Rather than protect the “opportunity” of the citizen producer, the new goal was to promote the “welfare” of the “consumer.” Rather than aim at “open” markets, the new goal was corporate control, albeit packaged as a vision of “free” markets. Rather than more “liberty,” the goal was, at least in theory, more stuff.
The results would warm the heart of King George. In many ways, power and profit in the US economy is more concentrated today than during age of J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. A century ago, monopolists controlled our heavy industry and our transportation. Today’s monopolists also control our farms and our stores, our services and our medicines. And today’s powers are increasingly buttressed by immensely powerful information technologies and by alliances with authoritarian regimes abroad.
This concentration of power threatens us in many ways. It enables the few to deliver us less and less while charging us more and more. Far worse, it enables the few to exert ever more direct control over us—in our workplaces and in our supposedly “independent” businesses. Worst of all, it is one of the main factors enabling the concentration of political power.
It has become fashionable to say that the few intend to roll back the great American achievements of the twentieth century. If we face up to their overthrow of our antimonopoly laws, it’s clear they are well on their way to overturning the best achievements of the late eighteenth century as well.
In the coming months, the Obama administration may bring an antitrust case or two, perhaps even against some fat and glittery target. The president himself may even announce a vigorous “campaign” to protect the “consumer.” Yet until we recollect that the purpose of these laws is not to engender more material wealth but to protect our most basic economic—and thereby political—freedoms, we will have ever less of both.
Every day we fail to act, America will become that much more of an economic—hence political—autocracy.