Just economy

Antitrust indeed

Antitrust laws are supposed to promote competition. They are supposed to guard against the formation of monopolies, keep markets free and protect consumers.

If antitrust laws were worth a damn, if they still worked, we would never be in a position of having no choice but to bail out gigantic banks because they are “too big to fail.” Walmart wouldn’t have put just about every Main Street five and dime, grocery, lumber yard and hardware store across America out of business. We wouldn’t have six megacorporations controlling most of what we read, see and hear every day.

American antitrust laws date back to the late 1800s. They are so named because as the Industrial Revolution was unfolding state laws didn’t allow companies to own stock in other companies and mergers were tightly controlled. The captains of 19th Century industry got around those laws by forming trusts in which one corporation was created to oversee management of the stocks of cooperating corporations. Through the trusts, supposed competitors colluded to fix prices, control production and drive out new competition through price wars.

Business consolidations in the oil, sugar, tobacco, beef and whiskey industries, among others, led to concentrations of capital and put control of commerce in fewer and fewer hands. Eventually, “trust” became synonymous with national monopolies. The nation’s first antitrust law — the Sherman Act of 1890 — outlawed any “monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy or combination to monopolize.”

The old antitrust laws are still on the books. If they were worth a damn, if they still worked today, maybe America would not be experiencing such rapid growth in the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few at the top and would not be the most unequal nation among all the industrialized countries of the world. The way antitrust laws are being applied and enforced today actually undermines trust in free markets.

If antitrust laws were worth a damn, maybe billionaires and corporate conglomerates wouldn’t have taken ownership of our government and wouldn’t be calling the tune on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country. Maybe there would be more trust in government.

One thing’s for sure, if antitrust laws with any kind of teeth applied to politics, we’d have more than two major parties.

In the 2016 presidential election, voters were given the choice of the two most unpopular major party nominees in the history of polling. Donald Trump became one of the choices by getting 14 million votes in the Republican primaries and caucuses. With more than 230 million Americans eligible to vote at the time, the support of 6% of eligible voters was all it took to secure the Republican nomination for president. Just under 17 million Democratic voters in party primaries and caucuses — about 7% of all eligible voters — made Hillary Clinton their nominee.

After Trump’s election, public approval of the Republican Party fell to an all-time low. The Republicans’ loss was not the Democrats’ gain. Favorable opinions of Democrats dropped to their lowest level in more than a quarter century.

Now that’s “antitrust” in the truest sense of the term. Public dissatisfaction with the major parties and discontent with the current workings of the political system are causing increasing numbers of Americans to lose faith in democracy and begin to warm up to alternatives like military rule.

If that’s not a wake-up call, what will be?