Conservatism’s relation with antitrust has been fraught with misunderstandings and sudden changes of heart. Long ago were the days when sitting Republican presidents warned the American people and the world against rising monopolies. The last to promise “Vigorous and equitable enforcement of antitrust laws” was President Gerald R. Ford in 1976. Since then, the consensus has shifted abruptly towards the neoliberal approach adopted by many economists, lawyers, public servants, and judges. Thus, since the 1980s many on the right believe that “the government solution…very often makes the problem worse.”
Such a radical understanding of ‘small state conservatism’ has informed the policy of every Republican administration since Reagan’s first term. Still today, a large swath of the scholarship argues that the mythical self-regulating markets will fix all bugs. The strongest belief is that whenever the state does not interfere “the existing [market] structure is the efficient structure.” Regrettably, this view also passed through to policy advice, including that of leading institutions such as the Heritage Foundation. For instance, the recent Conservative Guide to the Antitrust and Big Tech Debate argues that “antitrust is the wrong tool for addressing” concerns regarding Big Tech.
And the effects of this myopic stance are unfortunately in plain sight nowadays. The government’s laissez-faire approach lets dominant firms slash prices to eliminate competitors and conduct inappropriate deals leading to markets’ cartelization. Meanwhile, the finest answers leading conservatives can put on the table are, at best, patchworks — or, more often, propagandistic stunts.
Despite being deeply rooted, these views’ success represents an interesting twist of fortunes. Conservative economic thought always supported free markets. In fact, the dominant Chicago school spearheaded the massive deregulations of the 1970s and 80s. For instance, in The Economics of Regulation (1970), Alfred Kahn laid down the basis for the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act. But there was much more to conservative economics than just liberalizations, and nothing resembled free-market fundamentalism. As a matter of fact, the school’s foremost members surprisingly endorsed state intervention in the form of forceful antitrust enforcement. Key intellectuals of that tradition of conservative economic thought even advocated setting boundaries on corporations’ endless expansion.
In order to govern 21st-century capitalism, conservatives of all traditions should not insist on outdated neoliberal mantras. Instead, it is time to return to the ideas that made free-market economies thrive under the watch of democratic governments. Hence, conservatives should finally abandon the idea that minimalistic, but effective economic regulations will curtail investments and innovation. In fact, such an assumption is irreconcilable with mounting practical indications of antitrust enforcement’s minuscule negative impact on these factors.
Obviously, those eminent minds did not discuss the issue at hand today: the monopoly of big tech. But in regards to corporate power, the Chicago School laid out a blueprint for conservative antitrust enforcement. The thought here goes immediately to George Stigler’s The Theory of Economic Regulation (1971), who coined the term “regulatory capture”. He built a principled opposition to regulation arguing that the players can ‘capture’ the referee and impede rules’ equitable implementation. In his words, oftentimes industries or other groups are “able to use the state for its purposes”.
Evidently, Stigler was no naïve supporter of the state as the ultimate benefactor. Yet, he recognized that the concentration of wealth and power was problematic as it would eventually destroy free markets. Hence, he argued, there is only one way to dismantle monopolies while preserving the market’s freedom. And that is breaking up big business — the conservative way of antitrust enforcement.
It may not be the ideal thing to do. But it is the only right decision to take from a realist, conservative standpoint. This is so because the alternative is to regulate all the minute details of monopolies’ day-to-day activity. Such laws would be so intricate, invasive, and technical that lobbyists or special interests would capture the regulator easily. At least, breaking up a monopoly is once and for all, a definitive solution. After a similar decisive, conservative action the country could move on freely to face other issues.
To conclude, it is time for conservatives to retake possession of those brilliant theorists’ and practitioners’ works that made capitalism a winning economic system. Neoliberalism has misunderstood the real meaning of the policies that allowed the US to win the Cold War. It is time to rethink economic conservatism thoroughly and to tackle present challenges swiftly and face future ones with confidence.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.