In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the last presidential election, the political press focused briefly on a network of conservative writers, most of them still in their thirties, who were challenging at least some of the orthodoxies of the Republican Party. “Reformish conservatives,” the Washington Monthly called them in one of the first articles to take note of this coterie. In a long and sympathetic group profile published a year later, the New York Times Magazine tagged them “reformicons,” and suggested that they might make the Republicans the “party of ideas.”
If there was any single theme that defined these would-be reformers, it was their insistence that the GOP needed to stop mindlessly following the agenda of the donor class and start focusing on the increasing economic insecurity facing the majority of working-class Americans. Long before Trump’s capture of the Republican Party proved their point, two prominent reformicons, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, used the term “Sam’s Club” voters to describe a demographic whose members accounted for an increasing majority within the Republican Party, but who were increasingly ill served by, and alienated from, the glib, “free market” ideology peddled by the party’s plutocratic elites.
In the pages of journals such as the National Review and National Affairs, many reformicons put forward specific and practical, if rather small-bore, policy proposals targeted at Sam’s Club voters. These included measures like “mobility grants,” which would provide workers struggling to make a living wage in Middle America with the money they needed to move to the thriving metropolises where the best-paying jobs were. Others, like Yuval Levin, whom the New Republic in 2013 called “the conservative movement’s great intellectual hope,” offered up gauzier, somewhat contradictory big-think formulations, like his proposal to promote “subsidiarity”—a ten-dollar word for the not-so-new idea of pushing government power as far out of Washington as possible and into the hands of local heartland communities.
Coming into this election cycle, it looked as if the reformicons might actually gain some real power and influence. They had a pipeline into the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan. They pitched their ideas to many of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates, including Scott Walker and Rick Perry. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio actually ran on a number of reformicon ideas, along with more standard-issue pro-corporate-libertarian fare.
This was, of course, in those antediluvian days before the party was taken over by Donald Trump, whose xenophobia, authoritarianism, and policy cynicism the reformicons generally deplore but have been powerless to counter. Going forward, it is far from clear what role, if any, intellectuals of any stripe will play in the Republican Party. Yet it is still worth hoping that out of this crisis a new generation of conservative thinkers will emerge. If this election proves anything, it’s that America badly needs a conservatism that responsibly addresses the legitimate fears and resentments of working-class Americans who are falling behind. Healthy political debate also requires, now as always, a conservatism that sensibly challenges liberals and progressives when they fall into dogmatism and groupthink as, yes, sometimes happens.
What would such a conservatism look like? Let me make a humble suggestion. Going back to the Reagan-era fixation on cutting taxes and regulations isn’t going to wrest control of the GOP base away from Trump or Trumpism—not at a time when most Americans know instinctively that something has been fundamentally wrong with the economy for decades and distrust the stories told by elites about how it will all work out great for everyone in the end. Nor will grafting some kind of “compassionate conservatism” on top of that dead paradigm do the trick.
But there is a deeper, and by now nearly forgotten, tradition of “free market” conservatism that speaks directly to the major structural economic challenges faced by the country today. Better than that, it is a tradition that, as history shows, has broad potential appeal not only to those who think of themselves as principled conservatives, but also to many progressives—especially those, and there are many, who are alert to the many flaws of socialism. But to reconnect with this history, we must first break free of a false narrative about how we got here, one that has profoundly corrupted the meaning of terms like “free markets,” “regulation,” and “conservative.”
In his recent book, The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin tells a story about the evolution of America’s political economy that is the received wisdom of most of today’s conservative intellectuals, including the reformicons. According to this story line, up until the late nineteenth century America had a highly decentralized, laissez-faire economy. But then, starting in the Progressive Era, the federal government began to grow more powerful, intrusive, and centralizing. Under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, gigantic bureaucracies emerged that had the nominal purpose of taming the excesses of capitalism but that were really about concentrating economic power.
“Although these regulatory measures all took shape in response to the consolidating power of the industrial economy,” Levin writes, “they functioned not by pushing back against that aggregating tendency, but by further consolidating American society—in the process often reducing economic competition to increase government control over the economy and expanding the scope and scale of the state itself.”
Levin continues to recite the standard story line when it comes to the New Deal. “Most of the New Deal initiatives pursued by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to combat the economic collapse amounted to crude, if well intentioned, cartel-building exercises,” he writes. “They were intended to protect incumbent businesses and workers while restraining production . . . and propping up prices. The result was a highly centralized economy characterized by an unprecedented degree of corporatism.”
Still following the standard line, Levin tells us next that the collusion of Big Government, Big Labor, and Big Business continued to consolidate the economy through the 1950s and ’60s. “At the core of the postwar economy, as of the prewar economy, was a corporatist, cartel-based approach to regulation,” he writes. “Its purpose was to stifle competition to help large, incumbent players and to maintain an artificial balance between powerful producer interests and powerful labor.”
Faithfully moving on to the next chapter of the standard narrative, Levin recites how in “the late 1970s, leaders in both parties began to recognize that the consolidation of the economy was itself part of the problem.” And then Levin brings us to the big inflection point, explaining how, after Reagan, “a nation of big, powerful institutions . . . [gave] way to a nation of smaller, more nimble players competing intensely in a highly dynamic, if therefore also less stable, economy.”
So powerfully entrenched is this story line that even many liberals believe large parts of it. Across the political spectrum, received wisdom holds that beginning in the 1980s and continuing today, “creative destruction” has been “disrupting incumbents” and creating a far more competitive economy. When liberals tell the story, they usually don’t dispute that American society has become “market driven” over the last forty years. They just bemoan the increase in inequality and economic insecurity, which they see as a consequence of letting markets rule.
But there’s a big problem with letting your worldview and policy prescriptions be informed by this story: it’s mostly false. For example, its claim that cartels and economic concentration increased in the decades leading up to Reagan’s election is demonstrably and importantly untrue. Standard economic statistics show that the opposite happened. As the government grew, cartels lost power and markets become more competitive, even in the face of technological trends that pushed strongly in the opposite direction.
The standard story line is also demonstrably false in its claim that market competition has increased since the Reagan revolution rolled back government management of the economy. Nominal “deregulation” and “privatization” have instead brought well-documented levels of economic concentration and outright monopolization not seen since the Gilded Age. Getting this history right, and reconnecting with the real tradition of free market conservatism, is the first step in constructing a reformed platform that can stand up to the forces of Trumpism.
The big piece the standard story line leaves out is the anti-monopoly movement. Most people today, if they are aware of this movement at all, associate it with turn-of-the-last-century figures such as Teddy Roosevelt—the “trust buster” who, as American schoolchildren are still sometimes taught, struck a blow for the little guy by breaking up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Others might recall reading about the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed by Congress almost unanimously and signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, back in the “gay old ’90s.”
But the anti-monopoly movement doesn’t just belong to the days of barbershop quartets and bicycles built for two. It inserted itself into the heart of the New Deal and actually reached its zenith of power in the 1960s. By that time, it was at once so institutionalized and so successful in de-concentrating the American economy that it barely figured in political discourse. You might say it was so successful that it wound up being written out of history.
Here’s a prime example of the movement’s forgotten legacy. It is true, just as Levin and the standard story line claim, that in the early years of the New Deal the federal government implemented policies that directly and purposefully limited market competition. The particular vehicle was the notorious National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Under this early New Deal legislation, the government suspended all anti-monopoly enforcement against companies that promised to adopt minimum wages, establish minimum prices, and work closely with competitors and “code authorities” in government-sponsored cartels. The central idea was a carry-over from the Hoover administration, which had encouraged the growth of colluding business associations under the theory that this would lead to less ruinous competition and therefore to fewer bankruptcies and job losses.
But the standard line leaves out what happened next. In 1935, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of NIRA as unconstitutional. And with that decision, the New Deal completely changed course. Rather than trying to suppress market competition, public policy shifted aggressively and successfully for the next four decades to making markets more open and competitive.
It is hard to exaggerate the scale on which the federal government, from the late 1930s through the end of the ’70s, used antitrust and other measures to bust up cartels and monopolies and to foster competition in concentrated markets. Declaring that the average citizen “must have equal opportunity in the market place,” Franklin Roosevelt began the process by ramping up the staff of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, from just eighteen in 1933 to nearly 500 by 1943.
By February 1941, the DOJ was prosecuting ninety different antitrust cases, involving 2,909 defendants, and had thirty additional grand juries authorized or in progress. Among the results were consent decrees that, for example, forced General Electric to license the patents on its light bulbs, and, perhaps most consequentially, required AT&T to share its transistor technology, which became the basis for the digital revolution. (See “The Real Enemy of Unions,” Washington Monthly, May/June 2011; “Estates of Mind,” Washington Monthly, July/August 2013.)
Roosevelt framed the fight on concentrated economic power as necessary to save democracy from dictatorship. “The liberty of a democracy is not safe,” Roosevelt warned Congress in 1938, “if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”
In the postwar era, successive presidents and Congresses continued to turn up the dial on antitrust enforcement, convinced that monopoly was a threat not only to democracy but also to the market competition on which democratic capitalism depends. In 1950, for instance, Congress passed one of its strongest anti-monopoly laws, the Celler-Kefauver Act, which prohibited companies from acquiring each other’s assets, such as patents, trademarks, and copyrights, as a means of stifling competition.
Estes Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee, described the goals of the bill using a then-common formulation that linked antitrust enforcement to checking the growth not only of Big Business, but also of Big Government and Big Labor: “The concentration of great economic power in a few corporations necessarily leads to the formation of large nation-wide unions. The development of the two necessarily [leads] to big bureaus in the Government to deal with them.”
Given the conceptual boxes we live in today, it may be surprising to learn that such formulations were common not only among liberals like FDR and Kefauver, but also, and especially, among libertarians and advocates of limited government. A prime example is Henry Simons, author of such titles as “A Positive Program for Laissez-Faire,” and a progenitor of the modern libertarian movement.
For Simons and his many admirers, whose ranks included Frederick Hayek and the young Milton Friedman, as well as other highly influential conservatives clustered around the University of Chicago’s economics department in the 1940s and ’50s, it was axiomatic that Big Business threatened freedom as much as Big Government did. “The great enemy of democracy is monopoly in all its forms,” Simons wrote: “gigantic corporations, trade associations and other agencies for price control, trade-unions—or, in general, organization and concentration of power within functional classes.”
It was also axiomatic that anti-monopoly policies were essential to keeping both Big Business and Big Government in check. In mid-century America, the rising generation of libertarian intellectuals—men like Friedman, George Stigler, Aaron Director, and Jacob Viner—were far from the corporate apologists that some of them would later become. Instead, as Robert Van Horn and other historians of the movement have shown, the leading libertarian thinkers of this era opposed bigness in all its forms and accordingly advocated for such measures as limiting the size of corporations, rolling back patent monopolies, eliminating interlocking directorates, and even, in Simons’s case, heavily taxing corporate advertising.
Today, this framing may seem paradoxical in large part because of the false history we have been told, which holds that a “free market” is a market in which government plays no role. But it wasn’t paradoxical at all to Simons and other leading libertarian intellectuals in the postwar period who were trying to build a conservative movement free from corporate backing and control.
For them, true laissez-faire required that government have a “positive program” of antitrust and other policies to keep monopolists from seizing markets and destroying their efficiency. The only alternative was an expanding regulatory state that would inevitably lead to some form of socialism or fascism. The best approach, argued Simons and other libertarians at the time, was a “night watchman state” that enforces contracts and guards against explicit theft, importantly including the theft that inevitably results when monopolists set prices and control production rather than free and open markets.
As the economist J. Bradford DeLong has pointed out, Simons and other free market conservatives of the era were not so naive as to think that market forces would prevent or even tame monopolies. They knew that exposure to real competition causes most business owners and managers to want to avoid it at all costs. Had not Adam Smith himself famously written in the Wealth of Nations that “[p]eople of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”? For mid-century advocates of limited government, as for Smith, it was an obvious empirical truth that markets tend toward monopoly in the absence of some countervailing force.
Reflecting the consensus among liberals and conservatives on the importance of checking corporate power, the Eisenhower administration continued the aggressive use of antitrust legislation to foster market competition. Eisenhower’s Department of Justice actively enforced the Celler-Kefauver Act while prosecuting such goliaths as Kodak and the Continental Can Company, then headed by Ike’s friend and fellow comrade in arms, retired General Lucius Clay. Some liberals complained that Ike wasn’t aggressive enough. But largely because of his antitrust and other competition policies, there was no general increase in concentration during his time in office. The number of mergers taking place in the 1950s remained flat, while the rate of new business formation surged. And, in most sectors of the economy, data on market shares shows that effective competition either remained level or, in many markets, increased substantially.
If you want to put a face on those statistics, think of all the independently owned hardware stores, family diners, auto-repair shops, drugstores, and other small- and medium-sized businesses that sprang up across America’s vastly expanding postwar suburbs before the coming of the malls and Walmart. Or think of the growing ranks of regional home builders, community banks, light manufacturers, and other mid-sized firms that came into being, especially across dynamic metro Sunbelt areas like Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles. For better or worse, this was an era of hyper-localism compared to our own, and it was brought to America largely by anti-monopoly policy.
Adding to the ways in which public policy restrained concentration in this era were financial regulations that limited the opportunities for leveraged buyouts and that prevented communities from losing local ownership of their banks, thrifts, and savings and loan associations. Also important were fair trade laws that prevented, for example, the emergence of a giant trading company on the scale of today’s Walmart, let alone platform monopolies like the one Amazon is rapidly becoming. In the expanding postwar suburbs, as in the inner cities, most retailing remained under the control of locally or at least regionally owned businesses. Concurrently, inequality of income between the country’s heartland and its elite cities like New York and Boston faded as government policies continued to target monopolies and thereby ensured broad geographic distribution of economic power. (See “Bloom or Bust,” Washington Monthly, November/December 2015.)
By the 1960s, government measures to prevent economic concentration reached a crescendo. The Supreme Court, for example, blocked a merger that would have given a single distributor control over a mere 2 percent of the nation’s shoe outlets. Joining the antitrust actions of the Justice Department in the 1960s was a highly aggressive Federal Trade Commission that relentlessly targeted mergers like Procter & Gamble’s attempted takeover of Clorox. Meanwhile, exploding numbers of antitrust suits brought by private plaintiffs added to the strong deterrent against the kind of wheeling and dealing in mergers and acquisitions that would turn Wall Street into a casino in the 1980s and lead to the dominance of concentrated financial power over most of the economy.
Reflecting the broad conservative consensus supporting rigorous antitrust enforcement, Gordon Tullock, then a professor of economics at Rice University, published a highly influential paper in 1967 in which he likened monopoly to theft and antitrust enforcement to crime prevention. “As a successful theft will stimulate other thieves to greater industry and require greater investment in protective measures,” wrote Tullock, “so each successful establishment of a monopoly . . . will stimulate greater diversions of resources to organize further transfers of income.” The paper laid the foundation for what later became the “public choice” school of conservative thought, using monopoly as a paradigm of what has come to be known as “rent seeking,” or behavior that subtracts from society’s wealth by manipulating and abusing market rules.
At the time, this brand of conservative thinking stood in opposition to certain thought leaders who were emerging on the left, most notably the Harvard economist and public intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith. While still a small minority within the Democratic Party, Galbraith and like-minded liberals were peddling a competing vision under which Big Business would be contained by “the countervailing power” (as Galbraith put it) of Big Government and Big Labor, making antitrust, in the telling, quaint and unnecessary.
Coming into the 1970s, however, these new liberal voices had no effect on competition policy, while mainstream conservatives continued to see anti-monopoly enforcement as a bulwark against an expanding regulatory state. Accordingly, the long, slow postwar trend away from concentration and toward increased competition continued. In 1947, the share of the market controlled by the top four firms in producer industries was 45 percent. By 1972, that number had declined to 43 percent. An exception to the general trend occurred in consumer goods manufacturing, where, studies show, the growth of television advertising led to a modest increase in concentration in this sector despite the strict enforcement policy against mergers during this period. Relentless TV spots may have made American children in the 1960s and ’70s “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” but at least antitrust legislation prevented cereal makers from combining into the monoliths that dominate today’s global food markets.
By the time Reagan was first elected president, in 1980, most markets had been becoming more and more competitive for decades. Economists use standard measures and definitions to express how concentrated or competitive any given market is. If a single company controls 100 percent of a market, it is, of course, a total monopoly. If three or four firms split a market, that’s an oligopoly. Effective competition usually emerges only when the top four firms in a market control less than 40 percent of sales. Using these definitions, the share of the service sector subject to effective competition shot up during the era between the New Deal and the election of Reagan, from 54 percent to 78 percent. In the wholesale and retail trade sector, the rise was even more dramatic, from 58 percent to an astounding 93 percent.If this election proves anything, it’s that America badly needs a conservatism that responsibly addresses the legitimate fears and resentments of working-class Americans who are falling behind.
If this causes some cognitive dissonance, it should. After all, not only does it contradict the received wisdom about how expanding government stifles competition, this decline in concentration occurred at a time when all the emerging technologies of the era were pushing in the opposite direction.
Just think about it. New and expanding communication networks like television and radio made it far easier for advertisers to build dominant national brands that could wipe out local and niche competitors. Rapidly expanding automobile ownership and interstate highways collapsed distances and thereby threatened to disrupt and displace many small businesses, from neighborhood grocers to local craft producers. New materials like plastics and aluminum required expensive plants that had to operate at very high volumes to be economical. The rapidly expanding airline industry had network effects that then, as now, favored large carriers over smaller ones. One of the most popular ideas among social commentators in the 1950s was that America was becoming a “mass” society.
Yet in most markets competition was increasing and monopoly was fading. In short, the evidence clearly shows that the master narrative we have all heard about how more government regulation led to more concentration under the post–New Deal order is wrong. Instead, rigorous antitrust and other competition policies, supported by liberals and conservatives alike, played a significant role in either reversing market concentration or preventing it from getting worse. But that’s hardly the only part of the master narrative that turns out to be false.
In the next chapter of this folktale, America supposedly becomes a much more “market-driven” society. We’re told that the “deregulation” of airlines, railroads, banks, and other key industries that began under Jimmy Carter and vastly accelerated under Reagan produced a burst of “creative destruction” that “disrupted incumbents” and caused the economy to become much more competitive and dynamic.
One part of this is right. A revolutionary break in competition policy did occur. This included new guidelines adopted in 1982 by Reagan’s Justice Department that led to a wholesale retreat from antitrust enforcement except in rare cases of provable and brazen collusion to fix prices. Meanwhile, under Reagan and the next three administrations, the federal government abandoned many of the policies and regulations that it had previously used to shape and structure markets.
This change reflected in part the rising influence of liberals like Galbraith, as well as the arrival of a new generation of “New Democrats” like the MIT economist Lester Thurow. But it also reflected an abrupt change in the thinking of many self-styled advocates of “free markets,” who went from being opponents of economic concentration to defenders of monopoly. Starting in the 1970s, figures like Robert Bork and others associated with the “law and economics movement,” as it came to be known, started arguing that antitrust enforcement was an example of unnecessary and inefficient government intervention in the economy, rather than a precondition for keeping markets open and competitive, as previous generations of market conservatives had understood.
Just how and why this shift happened is a story for another time. If we are not in a generous mood, we might conclude that professional libertarians wound up getting captured by the corporations and plutocrats whose favor they needed to fund their think tanks and academic departments. If we are inclined to be more generous, we can allow that it is only with the benefit of three-plus decades of hindsight that we now know beyond a doubt that monopolies are not automatically disrupted by creative destruction.
Either way, it’s clear what the demise of the anti-monopoly movement has wrought. Since the early 1980s most markets have been becoming less competitive, not more. Even the Economist now concedes, as its editors wrote in a recent headline, that “[t]he rise of the corporate colossus threatens both competition and the legitimacy of business.” In virtually every sector of the economy, from coffins to credit cards, airlines to hospitals, markets are increasingly controlled by just a handful of dominant firms earning unprecedented profits. Even in—or, better put, especially in—a highly networked, globalized age of big data controlled by big corporations, the threat of monopoly looms far larger than in the age of steam.
Along with the rise in concentration has come a decline in entrepreneurship as more and more markets become closed to new competitors. As this magazine first reported in 2012, and as many others have since confirmed, the increasing dominance of large firms has caused the number of new businesses per capita to shrink far below what it was in the supposedly stagnant 1970s. (See “The Slow-Motion Collapse of American Entrepreneurship,” Washington Monthly, July/August 2012.)
Many people have trouble accepting the reality of this tidal shift because it contradicts their received ideas about how the world works. But it makes sense once you escape cognitive capture by the master narrative.
True free market thinkers, from Adam Smith to Henry Simons and the founding fathers of the Chicago School, could easily tell us what is wrong with the way we have come to conceptualize the relationship between government rule and market rule. So could populist, anticommunist Democrats like Kefauver, Wright Patman, and Lyndon Johnson, who dominated the party before the 1970s. In monopolized markets, they would tell us, “market forces” don’t determine outcomes; monopolists do. From this it follows that concentrated markets are never “deregulated.” Instead, they are regulated by monopolists who are as much a threat to liberty and free enterprise as any bloated socialist or communist bureaucracy.
And monopolists will come to control more and more markets unless government checks that outcome. Truly free, or laissez-faire, markets, meaning the kind that have even the potential to allocate resources efficiently, only exist when, as Simons put it, government adopts a “positive program” to prevent their monopolization. Or, as Tullock said in the 1960s, abuse by monopolies will increase just as other forms of property crime will increase in the absence of an effective police force.
As we face the crisis that the rise of Trumpism has revealed, what matters now is that we learn the actual lesson of the past: markets work their magic only when public policy prevents their capture by monopolists. This means that reform conservatives need to apply their talents to figuring out how to make a “positive program” of anti-monopoly work again, rather than repeating false narratives about how markets work only when government doesn’t.
For many, the road back to true market conservatism will require revisiting the concept of rent seeking. Many policy intellectuals today are focused on onerous rules and regulations that have the effect of increasing barriers to entry within specific occupations; licensing requirements for dog groomers and yoga instructors are favorite examples. Others focus on the cartelization of higher education and medicine that comes with the abuse of credentialing and accreditation systems. Why do you need the permission of established institutions of higher learning to start a university? Why can’t nurse practitioners compete with primary care doctors?
Still others focus on how exclusionary zoning can be used to drive up the cost of housing by stifling competition from new construction, or on how taxi regulation leads to fewer, higher-priced taxis. These are important lines of inquiry, and they illustrate how bad regulation can lead to concentration and monopoly rents in specific markets.
But the implication is not that monopoly rents will disappear in the absence of government. Indeed, the experience of the last forty years has shown that in the absence of effective anti-monopoly policy, concentration will occur on a scale that is many orders of magnitude larger, and of far more macroeconomic consequence, than any trends in local zoning or occupational licensing requirements.
Yes, governments can and have pursued ill-considered anti-monopoly policies. The Nixon White House used the threat of antitrust suits to shake down corporations like ITT for campaign contributions. But again, the implication is not that anti-monopoly policy inevitably degenerates into rent seeking, any more than instances of police corruption or incompetence prove we don’t need police. The implication is that we need smart and effective policies to preserve competition, and all the more so if we want true market-driven solutions to more of society’s problems.
The real trade-off, as the jurist Louis Brandeis once put it, is between regulating competition with a minimal government and regulating monopoly with a big government. The choice shouldn’t be hard, especially for the rising generation of conservatives who have come of age since the Great Recession. When banks become “too big to fail,” that leads to more regulations and bureaucracy to limit the systemic risks these giants pose (see Dodd-Frank). This growing regulatory burden, in turn, cripples smaller banks and prevents the formation of new banks. It’s better to not let banks get too big to fail in the first place.
I would suggest, too, that we reflect on how anti-monopoly policies connect with conservative thinking about the importance of families, local communities, and self-governance, or what Yuval Levin calls “mediating layers of society.” Historically, this connection was obvious to conservatives. The eighteenth-century thinker Edmund Burke, whom Levin celebrates, denounced the monopolies of his own time, among them the British East India Company, as a violation of the “Natural Right” of people to supply each other’s needs as they saw fit. America’s Founding Fathers—most notably those who, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were exceptionally suspect of concentrated power—believed that civic virtue presupposed the widespread distribution of property, and that “checks and balances” extended to checking monopoly in all its forms.
Today, many conservatives rightly focus on the importance of cohesive families rooted in strong local communities that are supported by civic institutions like churches and fraternal organizations. And many, such as Charles Murray, as well as many younger reformicons, point to the breakdown of these mediating institutions as a prime cause of the spreading hardships suffered by working-class blacks and whites. But few of them see how the loss of social capital in many inner-city and heartland communities is at least in part a consequence of the wave of corporate consolidations that have stripped local communities of the locally owned banks and other businesses that were once the pillars of their civic life. Lest there be any doubt about the relationship, abundant empirical studies show that levels of charitable giving and civic engagement decline when local companies are bought out by absentee owners. (See “The Real Reason Middle America Should Be Angry,” Washington Monthly, March/April/May 2016.)
Here is another consideration. While thinkers like Levin can advocate all they want for decentralizing political and governmental power to states and localities, liberals will never let that happen. But liberals could well become partners with conservatives in decentralizing economic power. Already in the Senate we see progressive firebrands like Elizabeth Warren and Tea Party champions like Mike Lee talking along remarkably similar lines about the dangers of economic concentration.
Adopting antitrust legislation will require conservatives to challenge many of their wealthiest and most powerful individual and corporate backers, the kind of people and companies that thrive in the current rent-seeking environment. But if Donald Trump has taught them anything, it’s that there’s less of a political price to pay for that than they thought.
Conservatives desperate to find an agenda that appeals to base Republican voters and that is different from, and better than, the racist Know-Nothingism of Donald Trump should also consider how the geography of monopoly links up with the political map. The dozen or two thriving metropolises that are hogging all the growth and gobbling up all the corporate ownership are solid blue and mostly on the coasts. It’s the mostly red state flyover country that’s getting the shaft. Republicans may think of pro-competition, anti-monopoly politics as leftist and progressive, but not only is that historically inaccurate, it is also their own (furious, desperate) voters who would most likely rally to, and benefit from, such a politics. The commercials almost write themselves: “It’s time to stop the liberal monopolists in San Francisco and New York from stealing our jobs and robbing our future!”
As longtime readers of the Washington Monthly know, this magazine has been making the case for strengthening antitrust laws for well over a decade. A number of leading progressive intellectuals have joined the crusade, from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to Council of Economic Advisers chairman Jason Furman. So too have a few leading Democratic politicians, including, just recently, Hillary Clinton. Still, there is great resistance to these ideas within the Democratic Party, especially from the tech giants that underwrite Democratic electoral campaigns and benefit mightily from monopoly control of their markets. It is far from certain that progressives can overcome this resistance on their own.
The best hope for a revival of anti-monopoly, then, is for conservatives to awaken to its promise, and to challenge progressives on that turf. As I’ve tried to argue here, there are profound conservative reasons for them to do so.