Tag Archives: Hipster Antitrust

Hipster antitrust

Policy debate has an important rhetoric component. An appealing metaphor can be powerful in swaying the opinion of policy makers and the public (remember trickle-down economics?). That said, there is a recent trend in the US and other parts of the world to depart from certain aspects of conventional antitrust wisdom and some scholars are expressing concerns about how digital markets will look like in the future. Some commentators are calling these new/refurbished ideas and gloomy views of the digital landscape hipster antitrust because they depart from what is deemed to be the mainstream.

To the best of my knowledge, the term started to be used as a twitter hashtag, mostly with a pejorative connotation.  The problem with that, seems to me, is that being a hipster is not necessarily a bad thing and, therefore, the rhetoric trick may not be the best tactic for the defenders of the antitrust status quo.

Let me give you a brief historical timeline, which I think has led us to the use of this term. Back in the 1950s, there was discontent among a small group of academics with how antitrust laws were applied, mainly to single-firm conduct and mergers. These scholars and their ideas gave birth to the most influential school of thought in modern competition law: the Chicago School (CS) of antitrust. In those days, George Stigler and his colleagues were the outcasts who proposed non-mainstream, hipster ideas. Fast forward to the 1980s, and the Chicago School became conventional wisdom. Current antitrust law in the US still reflects a great deal of influence from it. I will not discuss the relative merits and flaws of the CS. I will just point to one common theme in the rhetoric of its proponents. Practitioners and academics who defend CS points of view have always said that they use the economic approach to antitrust.

Since now most of the CS views are mainstream, that formulation is very powerful. It implies that someone who tries to approach antitrust analysis with frameworks other than price theory does not deserve to be called an economist. Now, the rhetoric was freshened up and the advocates of ideas that depart from the mainstream are dismissed as antitrust hipsters. Some are even trying to make #adultantitrust (the opposite of #hipsterantitrust) a thing. This is problematic for one fundamental reason. The way a society is organized in order to produce goods and services depends on a myriad of important factors studied across many fields of the economics profession and other disciplines. Saying that price theory alone holds all the answers is, to put it mildly, myopic.

As I explained in a previous post, an intervention aimed to curtail market power can have detrimental/positive effects on other sources of market failure such as information asymmetries and externalities.[1] Therefore, the improvement of consumer welfare is too narrow a focus of antitrust enforcement policies. The first issue would therefore be to analyze the merits of including a holistic approach to efficiency.

In addition, there is the issue of whether to consider other policy objectives. In the US, Banks were allowed to merge and grow because it was thought that the financial system was going to become more efficient, which might have been true. However, as a result, too-big-to-fail institutions arose from this merger wave, which may have led to the reckless behavior that caused the global financial meltdown that started in 2007. The question in retrospect is whether such factors should have been taken into account by the antitrust authorities. One could say that other public entities are better suited to make such an evaluation of these peculiar issues. Even if that is true, policy makers still have to decide how the balancing of the interests will be carried out. Should financial stability, for instance, take precedence over consumer welfare?

The Chicago School of antitrust succeeded against the backdrop of the deep economic recession in the 1970s, which led to a change in economic thinking and the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It comes, therefore, as little surprise that views of strong (though not blind) faith in market forces have come under attack after the Great Recession, with antitrust being no exception. The potential shift in competition policy could have deep repercussions at the global stage. Many countries in the world look to influential jurisdictions such as the US and the EU for guidance. If the consumer welfare paradigm falters in the former, the push for convergence toward the “economic approach” to antitrust could take a wild turn.

As a final consideration, it is important to keep in mind that each one of the new ideas and views in hipster antitrust analysis deserve their own individual trial. I, for one, do not question the merits of the law on vertical restrictions in the US compared to that in the EU. Another story is that of the relationship between political economy considerations and market dominance, topic on which I have already written before. Therefore, the doom of one hipster idea should not be taken to mean that all hipster points of views are baseless.

[1] See Markowitz, Richard (2014). Economics and the Interpretation and Application of U.S. and E.U. Antitrust Law (Vol. I). United States of America: Springer.

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