Amazon’s bullying of the book publisher Hachette and the uninvited bid by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox to swallow rival TimeWarner has caused some economists and commentators to ask, why are such aggressive moves not attracting the attention of the Justice Department’s trust-busters? Both moves are textbook examples of how monopoly power can abuse — or so they would have seemed not long ago.
At stake are the benefits that consumers and employees alike enjoy from the proliferation of competing companies operating in a free market. For markets to work freely and fairly, there must be enough companies competing; when the critical mass of businesses sinks below a certain number, monopolies occur, which is bad for consumers. When that happens, governments in mature societies intervene to prevent over-consolidation and protect people from exploitation.
This isn’t socialism; it is how the free market is meant to work. It is the ordered way of doing business advocated by free-market gurus like Friedrich Hayek, who believed the integrity of free enterprise was paramount to ensure that prices are arrived at fairly.
But after more than a century of intervening to keep markets honest, U.S. antitrust legislation is proving inadequate to the task. When industries and markets were clearly defined, it was easy to see what needed doing. When John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil snaffled the gasoline market, the Supreme Court, in 1910, declared it an illegal monopoly — and demanded it be broken up.
There is no such clarity now. The digital revolution has so upset every aspect of business that the old certainties appear no longer to apply. The Justice Department is left on the sidelines, anxious not to impose an inappropriate remedy on the market.