Libertarians, Corporate Power, and Antitrust
Our colleague Jason has a great post over at Positive Liberty arguing that libertarian policies would not "take us back" to the 19th century and a world of unlimited corporate power, as his leftist interlocutor believes. I think Jason is dead on in his analysis, particularly about how libertarians have long objected to corporate abuse of state power, but he missed one opportunity to drive the point home further. He writes:
Yes, we libertarians sometimes do take the corporations’ side, as we do with antitrust law.
Perhaps that was a rhetorically necessary concession given the spanking that Jason lays on, but I think it gives away too much. Jason rightly notes just afterward:
The principle at work here, in every case, is that no citizen may use the government to live at the expense of other citizens. It makes no difference whether he represents a corporation or not; the state is not to be used as a private piggy bank. Libertarians have always opposed such efforts, even when this stance has made us politically unpopular.
Unfortunately, he never connects the dots: one of the reasons many libertarians object to antitrust laws is that they provide an opportunity for some corporations to use the power of the state to punish other corporations and, in the process, punish consumers as well. The majority of antitrust cases arise because one firm objects to the behavior of another and wishes to use the state to get them to knock it off rather than legitimately out-competing them for the consumer dollar. Antitrust is a form of corporate welfare. Such behavior was in fact the origin of antitrust laws. Jason rightly points to libertarian analyses of rent-seeking, but doesn't link that back to his concession on antitrust.
Bottom line: libertarian support for abolishing antitrust law is a perfect example of our willingness not to privilege corporations. Corporations who make an honest living and provide the benefits that Jason nicely delineates are not being "favored" if we abolish antitrust. We're just letting them do their job in serving the consumer. The corporations who should fear abolishing antitrust are the ones not "serving the public" because they choose to try to earn a living by using the state to coercively eliminate their competition.
Leftists who worry about corporations using the power of the state to enrich themselves should be right in the trenches with libertarians calling for the abolition of antitrust and other similar laws. Perhaps if more libertarians were also more vocal about decrying the same sorts of corporate behavior in the context of the war machine (what is Halliburton if not classic corporatism?), the left might take us more seriously on antitrust as well. In any case, there's no need for us to give ground on the antitrust question. Jason could well have said "antirust is yet another example where libertarians are objecting to the corporate-state alliance," rather than framing it as taking the side of the innocent corporation making an honest living. Given the rhetorical situation of his reponse to a leftist, it seems like a missed opportunity.
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Anthony Gregory - 6/11/2007
Many libertarians do worship big business and assume, laughably, that the primary function of leviathan is to steal from the rich and give to the poor.
Steven Horwitz - 6/9/2007
Yup. Many of the leftist historians of the Progressive Era got it correct. Rothbard and others noted that years ago. There too is a place to start the conversation between libertarians and the left.
Keith Halderman - 6/9/2007
I believe your analysis of anti-trust laws as being favorable to large corporations is absolutely correct. Ironically, it was a Marxist historian, Gabriel Kolko with his book Triumph of Conservatism who first taught me that truth.