Why America should care about antitrust

Robert W. Tracinski

The judge’s finding of fact in the Microsoft antitrust trial has declared the company to be a dangerous monopoly, which will now be open to punishment – including everything from regulation to dismantling – by the courts. This ruling will have a far-reaching effect on all of our lives – not just in its practical consequences, but in the moral precedent it sets.

To understand the meaning of that precedent, let us suppose that you picked up the morning paper and saw the following top-news stories.

In the sports section, you read that a federal court has ruled against a top basketball star hailed by many as a new Michael Jordan. The player’s exceptional scoring ability leaves no room for competition, the court decides, so in order to level the playing field, he must be forced to compete wearing weights on his wrists and ankles. No other player will be subject to these handicaps, but, the judge declares, this athlete’s monopoly on championships requires that he be forced to play by a different set of rules.

In the arts section, you read that federal prosecutors are taking action against a famous, best-selling novelist. It is unfair, they declare, that the writer’s name and reputation cause his books to sell millions of copies, while novels by unknown authors are shut out of the market. Thus, Justice Department lawyers declare a judicial watchdog should be appointed to block the author’s future publishing deals if he determines that they will have an adverse effect on competition.

In the science and technology section, you read that a prolific inventor with thousands of patents is being sued by a coalition of businessmen and fellow inventors. His designs, they argue, are so revolutionary that they have become essential to any further progress in many industries. Thus, it is unfair that others should have to seek his permission to use those designs; such a monopoly would hamper innovation by others. Instead, the coalition wants to force the inventor to give up his patents to a holding company run by an impartial board of inventors and businessmen.

Most people would recognize that these cases constitute an unjust assault on ability and success. They would recognize that an outstanding athlete deserves his victories, that a successful writer has earned his reputation, and that a great scientist has a right to the products created by his genius. Most people would also realize the disastrous effects of these legal actions on future achievements. Why should the athlete continue to play if he is to be hobbled? Why should the author publish a new book if he has to work under the thumb of a government regulator? Why should the inventor continue to innovate if his ideas will be legally stolen? And most people would wonder how much longer they will be able to pursue their own career goals if anyone who is less successful can use the power of government to thwart their ambitions and steal their achievements.

Of course, you won’t actually find these stories in the sports, arts, or technology sections of the newspaper, at least not yet. Instead, you would have to turn to the business section – and read about the Microsoft decision. Because Microsoft has been more successful than its competitors, prosecutors are seeking to impose special restrictions on the production and marketing of its products. Microsoft’s competitors won’t face these restrictions – but because it has a monopoly, Microsoft must be forced, in the words of competitor Jim Barksdale, to play by a different set of rules. It is likely that these restrictions will be administered by a federal judge, who will have the authority to block Bill Gates’ future business decisions if he decrees that they are anti-competitive. Finally, many of Microsoft’s competitors have argued that, because Microsoft’s Windows operating system is used by so many people, it is an essential product and must be handed over to a separate, government-regulated company that will administer it for the public good.

In other words, because Microsoft has been too successful, it must be hobbled, regulated and expropriated.

The Justice Department’s apologists claim that this assault on Microsoft – and on hundreds of other companies now facing antitrust suits – is necessary to encourage innovation. But how can achievement in any field be fostered by attacking and penalizing the achievers? Would anyone accept the principles behind the antitrust laws as the best rule for running one’s own company – that one should fire or demote the most successful workers in order to make room for the undistinguished ones? Would anyone want this to be the standard used by his employer when it comes to judging his own work?

Most people would respond to such a plan with outrage. They would recognize it as a destructive injustice, as an assault on ability and achievement. And that is why they should care about the Microsoft ruling. They should care because the attack on Microsoft – and the moral principle behind it – poses a danger to anyone who strives to succeed.-Robert W. Tracinski is co-founder and chairman of the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism and editor of The Intellectual Activist.

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