Monopoly power is running wild. We need tough competition laws to rein it in | Michelle Meagher
There are a million ways to shop online, but all clicks lead back to the same few companies. We can buy a chicken for £3, but just four supermarkets dominate the groceries sector. Taxi rides have never been more affordable, but drivers fend for themselves in the gig economy. Although we live in a world of cheap conveniences, a third of the UK population worry about money so much it affects their mental health, wages aren’t going up, and increasing numbers of people are employed on zero-hour contracts.
There’s a growing unease about this situation – a sense that we have made a Faustian bargain in the name of low prices. The words that we could use to describe the root of this malaise – “corporate power” – have lost their political meaning. If the problem is corporate power, then the solution could be any number of individual fixes, from environmental fines to campaign finance reform to tightening tax codes. No movement can coalesce around such a fragmented agenda, and that suits big business just fine.
It was once well understood that concentrated economic power poses a fundamental threat to democracy. Antitrust laws were developed in the US at the turn of the 19th century to challenge Gilded Age robber barons such as JP Morgan and John D Rockefeller. In Europe, competition laws were introduced at the inception of the single market to ensure a level playing field across member states.
Yet today, our understanding of corporate power has been enfeebled. Through years of unchallenged mergers and abuses, companies have grown bigger and bigger, spreading their tentacles across multiple sectors and subcontractors and dominating entire markets. The watchdogs that are responsible for protecting competitive markets no longer bark (in the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority even dropped “Monopoly” from its title).
We can trace the roots of this trend back to the Chicago school of economic thought. Since the publication of US judge Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox in 1978, lawyers, judges and economists have grown increasingly tolerant of monopolies because of something known as the “consumer welfare standard”. This effectively permitted mergers between big companies so long as they resulted in low consumer prices, ushering in an age of ever-expanding Amazons and Walmarts.
Competition authorities today are allergic to the word monopoly, conveniently pandering to linguistic pedants who insist the word only applies when a single seller controls the market. But the activities of individual companies in concentrated industries such as car manufacturing, credit cards, broadband provision and airlines would then not qualify as monopolistic. Even Apple, with a market value bigger than the rest of the FTSE 100 combined, claims not to be a monopoly.
To see the bigger picture, we need a better description of monopoly power: it’s what happens when a company has the ability to skew outcomes in a market towards its own interests.
Instead, watchdogs use technical concepts that boil down to “efficiency” and the impact on consumer prices. These euphemisms trivialise questions of power, and make every merger and monopoly look good. Big businesses dangle the prospect of low prices to justify their size and distract from their power, even as they squeeze workers’ wages and ability to unionise.
I know this because when I worked as a competition lawyer in the City this is precisely what we helped clients do. Competition authorities continue to be bamboozled by this logic. Enforcement appears to operate back-to-front, and the competition experts don’t question it. For example, the UK Competition and Markets Authority fined a small seller of Justin Bieber wall posters for engaging in an illegal cartel – but left the supremacy of Amazon, the platform through which the conspiracy was perpetrated, untouched.
When all that matters is low prices, competition law can operate in twisted ways to shore up the power of the big and suppress the power of the small. Uber is free to control the prices its drivers charge, even though it claims those drivers are independent businesses, not employees. If the UK supreme court agrees with Uber’s categorisation later this year, then competition law could actually prevent drivers from unionising against Uber, as the union would amount to an illegal cartel.
Competition authorities are often hesitant to intervene with the growing power of technology companies because they fear clipping the wings of “golden geese”. This is partly why Facebook was allowed to acquire Instagram, and Google could purchase Waze. The same could be said of the European commission’s approvals of the Facebook/WhatsApp and Google/DoubleClick mergers. These deals consolidated the giants’ control over online ads, which is driving the spread of disinformation and hate speech. These companies have no incentive to take down the most sensational content that keeps users agitated and glued to their screens, ensuring valuable eyeballs can be sold off to the highest advertising bidder.
We’re trapped in a narrative of low prices and low wages that is conveniently aligned to the interests of merger-hungry finance. But do these companies even deliver cheap consumer prices? The social media and search services of Facebook and Google may appear “free”, but UK expenditure on digital advertising amounts to £500 per year for every household, about 80% of which goes straight to Facebook and Google. And although Uber rides are cheaper than many taxi fairs, the company avoids paying any VAT on its booking fees.
In the US, antitrust has been gutted by a laissez-faire, deregulatory agenda. The same forces are at work in Europe, ensuring that free market competition really means freedom for monopolies. We have left the job of protecting the balance of power in our economy and society to technocrats, who have fallen down an intellectual rabbit-hole. It’s time we paid close attention to the ways that markets are being shaped and corporate power legitimised.
Not every issue will be solved with competition policy. But many of the biggest can’t be solved without it.
• Michelle Meagher is a founder of the Inclusive Competition Forum and author of Competition Is Killing Us: How Big Business Is Harming Our Society and Planet – and What to Do About It