Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Archive for November 12th, 2012

Antitrust and political imbecility

with 3 comments

(The post below will perhaps be a bit more controversial than the stuff we usually publish here. I nonetheless bet that its title will draw some additional readers to it: insults -particular when linked to politics- are always good marketing tools!  Please note that these are simply some Sunday afternoon ruminations that aren’t that well though through; they are rather “thoughts in progress”. Would be happy to further distill/refine them through public discussion, so feedback will be appreciated).

In The Revolt of the Masses,  Ortega y Gasset wrote a phrase that I often quote:

Aligning oneself with the left, as with the right, is only one of the numberless ways open to man of being an imbecile: both are forms of moral hemiplegia.”.

This quote has in the past got me into trouble long discussions. There can certainly be some nuances to be made to it (some issues traditionally defended by the left, or by the right, -extremisms aside- are certainly worth aligning with; the quote rather refers to all accross the board uncritical alignments), but, frankly, I think Ortega had a point.

Another great writer -Orwell-  said that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. Undertaking such exercise from a pre-defined right or left perspective makes things easier, for you know in advance about what stance to take on most issues. On the contrary, assessing all issues objectively and on their merits (to end up agreeing sometimes with the left, sometimes with the right, and often benefiting from a mixture of the two) is complex, tiring and some would say perhaps unfeasible.

Now, considering that you probably – and rightly- don’t give a damn about our views on politics, you might legitimately ask why on earth I’m telling you all this. Well, because I think that the expansion and consolidation of antitrust laws accross the world can actually contribute to mitigating political imbecility through the promotion -even if implicit- of sensible centrist attitudes (actually, I’m not sure I think it, but it’s an interesting thesis anyway). Let me try to explain what I mean, and please tell me what you think:

The widespread adoption of antitrust rules implies a recognition that (i) freedom of enterprise and free competition is positive; and (ii) for such freedom to be real market forces and excessive market power need to be effectively supervised and corrected through public intervention. This crucial paradox -to limit some sorts of freedom for the sake of freedom itself- might sound obvious to you (after all the laws themselves are “those wise restraints that make men free“), but it has not been a feature of the economic policies pursued in many places around the globe. As a matter of principle, the recognition of the need to strike a balance between the two principles outlined above through the very enactment of antitrust rules (unless purely cosmetic) around the world constitutes a giant step towards the construction of centrist economic policies.

The enactment of antitrust rules also obliges public authorities in many jurisdictions to make complex economic decisions (notably on when to intervene and when not to). To be sure, these decisions may certainly be (and often are) infused by different ideologies, and instrumentalized to pursue non-centrist political agendas. However,  as experience, precedents, inter-relations and peer pressure consolidate, it will (I hope) become increasingly harder for decision-makers to  adopt decisions on the basis of elements other than objective ecomomic and legal knowlegde. That, to me, would be sensible centrist economic policy too.

The underlying assumption that smart public intervention might not only restrict but also actually promote economic freedom could hopefully be extended to other economic domains. For instance, it would be nice if some (not only in developing countries, think of the Tea Party movement) who identify themselves as pro-individual freedom (a principle with which I agree) would realize that for freedom to be real (and not confined to a few) public intervention is required in order to provide effective and equal opportunities to actually exercise it.

I was positively surprised to see that I may not be sole one thinking this way. A recent editorial in The Economist (which I would very much suggest you read; available here) not only called for “radical centrist policies” (what the piece also referred to as “true progressivism”) to combat growing inequalities, but also attributed antitrust a primary role in the pursuance of a centrist agenda. (“The priority should be a Rooseveltian attack on monopolies and vested interests, be they state-owned enterprises in China or big banks on Wall Street. The emerging world, in particular, needs to introduce greater transparency in government contracts and effective anti-trust law“).

Btw, I have the feeling (no evidence though) that The Economist drew inspiration for some these ideas from a recent and truly great book: Why nations fail  -which I’m trying to read when work allows-. This book also contains compelling arguments about why the promotion of competition through the application of antitrust rules is one of the most effective ways to contribute to the development of any given nation.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

12 November 2012 at 12:43 pm