23 Sep 2020 FAAMG (+T): Modern Day Monopolists Needing Broken?
Conservatives and libertarians do not generally search for private-industry monopolies to “bust” under the grinding wheel of government power. Though the first Roosevelt was a Republican, he was also very much a progressive, taken by many of the same ideas that would turn to liberty-killing, bureau-multiplying poison in the hands of his woeful successor Wilson. But a strong argument arises that liberty lovers must embrace the antitrust regime in this information-technology defined 21st century, at least with regard to the grasping, censoring giants in that field.
As a general rule, we on the right think that market forces are the answer to concentrations of monopoly power in private industry. If only one supplier offers a service in a certain class, then that supplier has the right to monopoly profits for the short period until others move in to provide competitive offerings, as they surely will, unless artificially restricted by government. And so the proper place of law is to ensure against government restrictions on free commerce – be they government monopolies or subsidies or other barriers to entry by competitors – but otherwise to leave things alone.
Now, though, come the technology giants of the early 21st century. In many ways they reprise the so-called Robber Barons of the late 19th, bestriding the newest business vistas like colossi. (That comparison works only with regard to business, not to personal aspect. So far from the fat-cat visions of old, bedecked with monocles and bags adorned with dollar signs, these new cats of commerce are so lean and hip that they better resemble the bedraggled beggars of the best Gilded Age cartoons.)
But there’s a key difference. This new crowd of plutocrats seeks to control, and thereby to censor, these new modes and methods of communication that have so effectively diminished and even defeated the systems of expression of just a few decades past. When last did you write a letter? How jealously do you frown in irritation before answering any phone call? How recently have you rustled a newspaper in any venue except a hotel, if for some reason your “phone” were unavailable? Our civil life is almost entirely lived online now, with information sought using Google, then conveyed via Facebook and Twitter and other networks. Even social-media recusants like your humble author correspond almost entirely these days by email (now dismissed by the newest generation as hopelessly antiquated) and text. Communication is now in the hands of the tech lords.
And those masters of the cyberverse, in their wisdom, seek not to censor in the sensible margins, patrolling against kiddie porn and calls to incipient violent action. No, they have brought their wealth and power to bear to complicate or cut off speech by those on the right half of the political spectrum: tagging or removing posts; rigging search results so that leftwing opinions rise above those in the center or on the right; filling their staffs with those who understand any disagreement with their radicalism to be “hate” that must be de-platformed and silenced because, in their untutored but proud refrain, “hate speech is not free speech.” What does that mean? It’s gibberish at constitutional law. In practical fact, it means: “shut up, you monsters who dare to disagree with me.”
Now, in a normal-sized business without a stranglehold on an industry – without, in antitrust terms, market power – this wouldn’t matter at all. Privately held companies of such reach can target any customers they want, in any way they want, except that they cannot discriminate on racial, sex-based or other forbidden grounds. Even publicly traded companies can target specific audiences, even on political grounds, if such targeting promotes, within reasonable business judgment, maximization of shareholder value.
But for giant companies that control all or a prohibitive chunk of an industry – enough to throw their weight around and expect obedience – this sort of discrimination itself provides some evidence that the companies are monopolies, and are therefore liable to prosecution, and even to dissolution, under antitrust law. Such actions are not dispositive, but are probative, and become very relevant indeed when other evidences of market power and monopoly behavior – such as buying up lots of potential competitors, and then either adding them to the company’s monolithic reach or killing them off – are added.
All of this should give those silicon titans pause for serious reflection. Something for @Jack to consider during his Mayanmarian meditation retreats.
Not surprisingly, this combination of monopolist power and censorship had earned the censure of some of the young turks on the political side meant to be buried by the machinations. Almost as unsurprisingly, that opprobrium has been ratified by many on the left, who doctrinally know of no activities with which they will not interfere, and which they do not wish to control. And so the threat of massive antitrust enforcement closes in, emanating from the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department, the Senate and Attorneys General offices nationwide.
The big tech companies have been saved so far – at least since the Microsoft action in the late 1990s – by the natural inclination of those on the center and the right not to push antitrust enforcement. But as calls by Senator Hawley and others indicate, that reserve is cracking.
In the end, the antitrust laws remain on the books. And once the political right is convinced, as it is being convinced, that its efforts to preserve liberty require setting aside traditional antitrust squeamishness, it will do so. The left, meanwhile, won’t have the intellectual agility or unity to mount a coherent opposition. It will, guided by its quenchless thirst for power and control, broadly concur.
Covering in accelerants and trying to burn to ash the hand that protects you is bad business, tech lords. I suspect you’re going to learn.
Scott Shepard is a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and Deputy Director of its Free Enterprise Project. This was first published at Townhall Finance.