Monopolies are often derided by economists and non-economists alike, and often for good reason: monopolist firms are less efficient than their perfectly-competitive counterparts (to use more technical language, they charge a price higher than their marginal costs), which means consumers pay more for fewer goods. Partly based off this theory (but also because of political pressures from reformers) the US in 1890 passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which has become the main tool for the government to break up monopolies into more firms. This act is hailed even by some free-market advocates for its efforts to create competitiveness. Are monopolies undesirable and do they run counter to free market principles? I argue “no” to both questions below the fold.
The great French economist and philosopher Frederic Bastiat wrote in The Law:
The mission of law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property, even thought the law may be acting in a philanthropic spirit. Its mission is to protect property.
The law is justice — simple and clear, precise and bounded. Every eye can see it, and every mind can grasp it; for justice is measurable, immutable, and unchangeable. Justice is neither more than this nor less than this. If you exceed this proper limit — if you attempt to make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, literary, or artistic — you will then be lost in an uncharted territory, in vagueness and uncertainty, in a forced utopia or, even worse, in a multitude of utopias, each striving to seize the law and impose it upon you. This is true because fraternity and philanthropy, unlike justice, do not have precise limits. Once started, where will you stop? And where will the law stop itself?
Bastiat’s point, that the law exists to serve justice and nothing more, is the essence of the rule of law. The rule of law is the idea that no one is above the law, but also no one is beneath the law. Many people remember the first part, but conveniently forget the second.
Over the past few years, and especially since the election of Donald Trump, the law has come under attack, both by those on the Left and the Right. Both want to carve out exceptions to the law, either by eliminating protections under the law for disliked groups (the Left for the alt-right, the Right for immigrants and Muslims) or by giving themselves greater share of “legal plunder” (tariffs, welfare, subsidies, etc etc). As a classical liberal, it disheartens me to see my country, one founded on (if not always practiced) the ideals of justice, liberty, and the rule of law so willingly and vehemently attack these very ideals for the sake of political virtue-signalling or simple spite.
Justice is blind. That means she sees not the devils nor the angels of our nature. She hears only the circumstances, and defends the wronged party. Whether that party is black, white, Hispanic, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, Muslim, of the “right” mind, of the “wrong” mind, it doesn’t matter. Justice defends them all. This must mean that, yes, we must give the Devil himself the benefit of the law for the sake of justice.
A couple of examples. First, here is a NYT story explaining the jubilation many had after Richard Spencer (the notorious neo-Nazi) was attacked. Second, this story from Reason responding to the Republican (and sometimes right-libertarian) argument that immigration should be restricted because immigrants tend to vote Democrat. In both cases, we have an ‘in-group’ trying to carve out exceptions to the law (in the first case freedom of speech, in the second case freedom of migration and protection under the law) for an ‘out-group’ who thinks differently from the in-group. In both cases, the in-groups are making a mockery of the law.
As a classical liberal, I will defend the rights of both out-groups, indeed all out-groups, because Justice cares not whether one is in or out, and the law shouldn’t either. I will defend them, not because of any sympathies to neo-nazis (of which I have none) or particular love of immigrants but for my own safety’s sake. If we weaken the protection of the law for out-groups, what happens when we find ourselves the out-group? To borrow the language from A Man For All Seasons, if we cut down every law to apprehend the Devil, what will protect us when the Devil turns on us? Yes, I would give the Devil the benefit of the law for my own safety’s sake!
Tyrants rarely run roughshod over the law, but rather use precedence set by those before them (this precedence, although itself a mockery of the law, gives the illusion that the tyrant’s actions are lawful). Exceptions to the law, granted by angles to pursue angelic ends, then become the tools of the devil to pursue devilish ends. Vast presidential powers, handed over by Congress to the Executive Branch, now lay in the hands of Trump. A vast regulatory government, once in the hands of relatively moderates now exists in the hands of an ignorant, egomaniac populist. When the moderates were in power and wanted more and more leeway, the classical liberals objected; like More in the clip above, we refused to cut down the law to pursue the Devil for the exact reason that now is in our face: the Devil has turned ’round upon us and many laws have been cut down.
We must defend the rule of law and its protections for all people, including the Devil himself. Once the door is opened that people who have “wrong” opinions do not deserve the same protections and liberties as people with “right” opinions, then it’s damn near impossible to close that door.
At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux highlights a new paper by Jonathan Rothwell challenging the findings of David Autor et al that trade with China is harming American workers. The abstract of the paper sounds interesting, but I want to focus on one point in particular (Emphasis mine):
At the community level, Autor, Dorn and Hanson (2013) find that local areas have experienced slower job and wage growth and higher unemployment because of import competition with China. Upon analyzing their data, I conclude that their results are biased by the weaker macroeconomic performance of 2000-2007 relative to the 1990s. When I analyze inter-local area economic changes — rather analyzing changes within and across areas — I fail to reject the null hypotheses that import competition has no effect on wage or employment growth, except within the manufacturing sector during the most recent period, or that it has no effect on many other outcomes, including labor force participation, intergenerational mobility, and mortality.
There’s an interesting lesson to be learned here, beyond just what Rothwell finds:
Findings can depend on how one slices the data. To wit, Autor et al find significant negative effects when the data is within or across areas and Rothwell finds significant positive effects when the data is inter-local area. We see the same in minimum wage (time series vs panel data, etc).
Any statistician can tell you that regression models can change depending on how you cut and categorize the data: different “n” can give different outcomes, different controls and dummies can give different signs, etc. We try for robustness, but it is still at the end of the day a model.
Of course, none of this is to disparage the work of Autor et al or Rothwell, or even econometrics in general (an important field, if used correctly). But we need to fully understand its limitations and our own assumptions, and be very careful before tossing out theory.
Gordon Tullock, in his 1967 paper in the Western Economic Journal, demonstrates exactly this. Tullock begins with a conversation regarding welfare costs from monopolies and tariffs, citing recent research that finds these welfare losses are pretty minimal. In fact, they’re so small that Tullock finds:
Judging from conversations with graduate students, a number of younger economists are in fact drawing the conclusion that tariffs and monopolies are not of much importance. This view is now beginning to appear in the literature.
Does this mean our theory about trade and tariffs are wrong? Does this mean tariffs can be helpful, or at least not substantially harmful? Does this mean microeconomists spend too much time focusing on tariffs at the expense of other topics? Or is it a measurement issue and the theory is fine? Tullock explores this issue and finds it is a measurement issue, not a theoretical issue. In other words, our tools not theory were incomplete. Tullock explains in the article the need to factor in lobbying costs which do not show up in the standard welfare analysis but are nonetheless substantial (read the article for yourself to see his argument. It’s short, 9 pages, and not technical at all).
Had Tullock not looked beyond the initial challenge to trade theory, had he (and other economists) just thrown off the theory based upon the small welfare losses, the world would be a far worse place. As it is, his (and Jim Buchanan’s) explorations eventually lead to the field of Public Choice and provided us with a cleaner understanding on the theory of trade, tariffs, monopolies, politics, and the costs associated therefrom.
The story of Gordon Tullock in the 1960’s is why anyone should be weary of claims that theory of any kind is “mistaken” or “proven wrong” by this or that study. We see this all the time with minimum wage. The good economist (or scientist) will ask the question, as Tullock (and Mundell) did back in the 60’s: Is the theory invalid, or our tools? It may be the theory is (such as with the case of geo-centrism) or our measurement tools are lacking. In fact, we see this with regards to minimum wage: measurable job losses may be minimal, but there are many other margins firms adjust along, not all of whom are measured. It would be mistaken to toss out the theory.
Economics is still a young science. I suspect, as has already happened, some of our theories will be tossed out as we gain more insight and knowledge. But we musn’t be too hasty in doing so (especially when there is political pressure to do so), lest we sacrifice knowledge for convenience and insight for what my professor Thomas Startmann calls “naive analysis.”
Craig Walenta’s comment on this blog post at Cafe Hayek got me thinking. Craig says:
“Well they’re [tariffs] also a way to maybe compel a foreign country to cease its protectionist activities they’re engaging in.”
Craig makes a common (at least among some free market supporters) argument for tariffs on the grounds of promoting free markets, but I’m not quite sure it’s a likely outcome. The reason is incentives.
Governments tend to like tariffs for multiple reasons, and among those are: 1) they’re vote-getters, 2) they generate tax revenues. If we assume governments, like all organizations and people, are self-interested and rational, then the case for tariffs becomes obvious: it’s a relatively cheap (in terms of political effort) method of promoting one’s political power. It is not in the interest of the government to reduce tariffs. Reduction in tariffs would either mean an increase in other, perhaps less politically safe, taxes or cutback in spending (assuming this to be revenue neutral) and the politician himself would need to look elsewhere for votes. When a foreign nation enacts protectionist measures against a country, it is unlikely they would respond to removing their tariffs because they face the same incentives as the host nation. Further, the host nation has no incentive to reduce tariffs even if it “wins” the trade war.
In short, I strongly suspect an “arms race” will develop among the competing nations, one which will only lead to higher tariffs and lower standards of living. Just as war cannot promote peace, a protectionist trade war cannot promote free markets.
No one wants to be killed via a bad drug, right? Safety is important! But is there such a thing as too much safety? Perhaps there is. Let’s examine this question though the lens of economics: though a cost-benefit analysis. But, let’s look at this in terms, not of money, but in lives.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that it takes the FDA 10 years to approve a drug for sale in the US market. Those 10 years come with a cost in life: people who, if taking the drug, would survive but die instead.* Let’s say that number is 100 lives (10 per year). The benefit comes from those who, once the drug is approved, survive given a certain success rate. Let’s say that number is 5/yr. It would take 20 years for the drug on the market for it to “break even” in terms of lives saved vs lives lost during testing. That’s a long time (a generation). However, if the testing period were shortened , say to 5 years, it would take only a decade to “break even.” The cost, in terms of lives lost, would be lower. There is a benefit, in this example, to reducing the FDA’s regulatory ability.
“Well, that’s all well and good,” you might say, “but this is a hypothetical example. In the real world, we don’t know what the outcome of drug trials may be!” This is quite true: the FDA could rush through an approval that turns out to be unwarranted and costs more lives. However, this is only tangential to my point, which is the cost-benefit analysis economists do can provide some insight into the “right” regulatory process: if the process is too long and doesn’t provide any additional benefits but incurs further costs, we may wish to reduce the regulatory burden.**
Cost-benefit analysis (which, as we have seen, needn’t be limited to just monetary costs/benefits) is a useful tool for assessing claims by those who lament deregulation and/or call for more regulation. It could be such regulation would cause more harm than good! (Likewise the opposite is also true: it could be the deregulation causes more harm than good)
*This is an extreme example. We could easily have said “people who suffer instead” and the point would remain the same. But allow me some dramatic flair.
President Trump’s executive order last week banning entry into the nation from several predominantly Muslim countries can best be described as a charlie-foxtrot. Among those caught in the wave of uncertainty following the order was the National Basketball Association. From nba.com:
The NBA, its players and its coaches have waded into political waters in the months before and since the November election. But this week politics bled into the NBA when President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Milwaukee Bucks rookie Thon Maker and Los Angeles Lakers veteran Luol Deng both are natives of Sudan, one of the countries subject to the temporary ban along with Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
The Bucks were concerned about Maker’s ability to travel freely with the team back to the United States from its game Friday in Toronto. The NBA released a statement saying it has contacted the State Department for information on how the restriction might affect personnel from the seven countries.
Fortunately, there were no initial negative consequences for the Bucks. From ESPN:
Bucks coach Jason Kidd, in announcing Saturday that Maker would start, confirmed that Maker had made it to Milwaukee without incident. Maker scored eight points and grabbed two rebounds in eight minutes in Friday night’s 102-86 loss at Toronto, where he had lived for two years prior to being drafted in 2016 by Milwaukee.
However, the fact that Maker was able to re-enter the country from Toronto does not mean there are any losses involved. Indeed, there were many unseen consequences from the executive order:
- Coach Kidd had to spend time devising an emergency game plan in case Maker was detained. This subtracted from his time focusing on a “true” game plan where all his players can be used. This may have contributed to their 112-108 loss to Boston on Saturday.
- NBA and team lawyers have been scurrying to get clarification on the new rules, detracting from other duties
- State Department officials have been scurrying to answer the questions poised by the NBA and team lawyers, detracting from other duties
- Maker himself (and likely his teammates) were distracted by this non-basketball issue, diverting attention away from practice and game planning (again, possibly contributing to the loss on Saturday).
The list above is hardly exhaustive. Further, we can imagine this uncertainty, and similar costs, multiplied across the nation for all kinds of industries and employers. These disruptions, while perhaps at a cost of only a few thousand dollars each (a number I arbitrarily made up. Could be higher/lower), multiplied across millions of individuals becomes a great sum.
One final NBA-specific point: 90 days (the length of the ban) seems small in the scheme of things. But, for the NBA, that is half their season. This ban is no small thing for the Association.
Economists have many models that exist in highly stylized theoretical settings (this is just a fancy way of saying “perfect settings”). When we compare real-world institutions and situations to these stylized models, the real world often looks awful in comparison. There are externalities, corruption, misallocation, a general lack of equilibrium, asymmetric information, etc etc etc. Thus the models compared to real life look ever more better. It’s severely tempting to use the flaws of the real life outcomes to justify moving toward theoretical approaches (eg. using market failures to justify government intervention).
But, as was discussed the other day in the Alchian quote, alternative institutional arraignments have flaws, too. To compare a flawed institution to an ideal alternative is what Harold Demsetz called the “Nirvana Fallacy” and can lead to mistaken conclusions. We need to compare institutions using the same assumptions about each one. For example, market operations are subject to externalities because of information asymmetry among the participants? Government intervention must also be subject to such information asymmetry. Markets misallocate due to imperfect information its participants? The same must be said for government operators in the market. And so on. This application of consistent assumptions when comparing alternative institutions is, ultimately, at the heart of economics in general and Public Choice Theory in particular.
It is also important to note these flaws as well as virtues of alternative institutions because the situation may change and warrant different approaches. Take, for example, trade tariffs. As a general rule, the lower the tariff the better (I will refrain from proving this at this time and we will proceed with the assumption it is true for the sake of discussion)*. Let’s say that the current tariff on Good X is 25%. The economist would argue for lower tariffs. Now, let’s say that a new government comes in and declares that tariffs on Good X will rise to 35%. The economist’s position will now change to maintain the current 25% tariff. The situation has changed and the comparatively better option is to maintain the status quo.** Compared to Heaven, Earth looks like Hell. But compared to Hell, Earth looks like Heaven.
When looking at institutions and discussing institutional change, we need to compare like with like. Comparing a market failure with a highly stylized government intervention is unfair (and, likewise, comparing highly stylized markets with government failure is also unfair). The flaws in each must be recognized and honestly discussed. The existence of flaws in any given institution is not a reason to abandon it.
*If you disagree with this assumption, it doesn’t change the discussion. Simply reverse the signs of the discussion in the paragraph.
**Of course, this is not to say the economist won’t/shouldn’t advocate for even lower tariffs once the 25% is met. We’re just looking at this one situation.