Last month President Biden designated Rebecca Slaughter as acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, where she has served as a commissioner since 2018. During a recent public forum, she gave some fascinating comments about ideological differences over antitrust, the tech sector, and economic policy that could serve as a guide for how she will lead the Commission. Unfortunately those comments—coming in the shadow of the Capitol Hill riot—presented a false dichotomy and ignored how much progressive and populist policy advocates already have in common.
On the hot button issue of content moderation and social media de-platforming, Slaughter said, “One thing I’ve found really interesting is a lot of the voices that are decrying the actions of the platforms to remove some of this dangerous content are the same ones who resist government antitrust intervention.”
This echoes the conventional wisdom that left-of-center critics favor more aggressive antitrust enforcement and right-of-center voters are more worried about being de-platformed. But that’s a misleading narrative, given that many of the most aggressive critics of Twitter, Facebook, and other large Internet companies are Trump-aligned politicians who have called for federal antitrust regulators to be unleashed on so-called Big Tech firms.
We often hear that left-wing and right-wing politics couldn’t be more polarized, but two of the loudest interest groups in the economic policy world these days have an oddly similar approach. Progressives are trying to use antitrust law to address dilemmas that have nothing to do with antitrust, and economic nationalists are trying to solve problems that, ultimately, have little to do with economics. What they both say they want would increase government power beyond a mere centrally planned economy and require a centrally planned society. Not only is this a foolish goal, but these efforts could kneecap the US economy at exactly the time, post-COVID, when we will most need resilience and renewal.
In progressive antitrust terms, it’s taken the form of calls for abandoning the “consumer harm” standard and substituting demands for undefinable goals like “inclusiveness” and “fairness.”
This approach opens the floodgates to complaints by anyone who doesn’t like how a particular firm is operating or how any given industry is constituted. Senator Elizabth Warren claims, for example, that we should be breaking up companies that are too big “even if they are generally providing good service at a reasonable price.” Defending the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Microsoft in the late 1990s, she writes “Aren’t we all glad that now we have the option of using Google instead of being stuck with Bing?” So Google was good in 1999 but it’s bad now, and we can judge that based on the market share it’s earned in the meantime by becoming the top competitor in its industry? Are we sure we should be using one politician’s vague feeling about search engine options twenty years after the fact to guide policy choices with multi-billion dollar implications in 2021?
Read the full article at The Foundation for Economic Education.