Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Archive for November 3rd, 2011

The language of competition law

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In a comment to a recent post we recently engaged in a discussion about the meaning of words and the importance of the proper use of terminology in light of the crucial meanings, nuances and attitudes that words often implicitly or explicitly convey. Words often “carry dynamite”, we said.  A few days earlier, we had also written another post which -perhaps in a manifestation of wishful thinking- highlighted the fact that the Court had used the term “objective justification” in an area (Art. 101 TFEU) where it had never resorted to it before. In our view, words matter. A lot.

All this sprung a reflection about the importance of words and of languages when it comes to understanding, teaching or applying law in general, and competition law in particular:

The crucial influence of the use of certain words, metaphors or narratives has already been noted in the past by some of the most prominent antitrust scholars. Excellent examples of this can be found, amongst others, in the influential piece by late Prof. Areeda on “Essential Facilities: An Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles“; in “Antitrust Doctrine and the Sway of Metaphor” by Michael Boudin (who, btw, was my antitrust professor at HLS); or in Newberg´s “A Narrative Construction of Antitrust“.

One of our blogosphere colleages (Prof. Sokol) also wrote a post some time ago about The Language of Sex and Antitrust (if cheap advice on how to increase online readers is right, this is the link that most of you will be clicking…).

But beyond words, the language in which the law is conceived, drafted, learnt, taught, and interpreted or applied also makes a huge difference. I am not aware of the existence of any study on whether and how languages compete to shape the law, but it is undeniable that they do shape it, and that their influence can be much greater than that of words, because languages (i) are also vehicles for the diffusion of certain values; and (ii) because they are subject to very strong network externalities (if any enforcer is reading this, then languages -as beneficiaries of network externalities- may have just become a new antitrust suspect…).

Many of you may have first-hand experience of the fact that law is very often learnt, taught and understood differently depending on the language used. Nicolas and I, for instance, are currently working on competition law textbooks in our own languages, and it is not always easy to transform the input we normally receive (typycally in English) to our output. Mere translation is not always enough because the language strongly influences the way in which the information is rationalized. Examples abound:

Some posts ago we wrote about the future reform of the General Court and noted that more than 40% of référendaires (clerks) at the GC are of French nationality. This is obviously due to the fact that the official language at the Court is French, but, as we noted in that post, those numbers have implications far beyond the merely linguistic. In that case there are also cultural elements involved (in as much as the language may be associated to the values of a country), but the influence of the French values through the French language can be traced in many of the Courts attitudes and Judgments.

Now English has become the lingua franca (a fact of which this blog stands as evidence). This may have had some disadvantages for the English language (because being used by non-natives it risks deteriorating, as this blog also illustrates..), but overall it offers many advantages to anglosaxon values and ideas which enjoy an “unparalleled competitive advantage” (to use the words of the CFI´s Judgment in Microsoft). Ask the Financial Times or The Economist

But competitive advantages arising from the use of language in competition law are not merely enjoyed by ideas and policies, but also by firms. One example of this could be the legal market, where anglosaxon firms enjoy a competitive advantage on the worldwide market just because they´re anglosaxon firms.  I´m not necessarily criticizing this; my firm, for instance, also benefits from a competitive advantage derived from huge brand recognition in its main market. I do nevertheless have a problem with the legal market becoming a “luxury” market where brands matter more than quality and outcomes (and I know many examples where this is true in the EU competition law world), but this is another matter that perhaps we´ll deal with in another future post.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

3 November 2011 at 9:13 pm