On Friday, President Biden signed a sweeping executive order intended to curb corporate dominance, enhance business competition and give consumers and workers more choices and power. The order features 72 initiatives ranging widely in subject matter — net neutrality and cheaper hearing aids, more scrutiny of Big Tech and a crackdown on the high fees charged by ocean shippers.
The president called his order a return to the “antitrust traditions” of the Roosevelt presidencies early in the last century. This may have surprised some listeners, since the order offers no immediate call for the breakup of Facebook or Amazon — none of the trustbusting that is antitrust’s signature idea.
But Mr. Biden’s executive order does something even more important than trustbusting. It returns the United States to the great antimonopoly tradition that has animated social and economic reform almost since the nation’s founding. This tradition worries less about technocratic questions such as whether concentrations of corporate power will lead to lower consumer prices and more about broader social and political concerns about the destructive effects that big business can have on our nation.
In 1773, when American patriots dumped tea from the British East India Company into Boston Harbor, they were protesting not just an unfair tax but also the British crown’s grant of a monopoly to a court favorite. That sentiment flourished in the 19th century, when Americans of all stripes saw concentrations of economic power corrupting both democracy and the free market. Abolitionists drew on the antimonopoly ethos when they denounced the slave power, and Andrew Jackson sought to dismantle the Second Bank of the United States because it sustained the privileges of an Eastern commercial and financial elite.
Threats to democracy became even more pressing with the rise of giant corporations, often called trusts. When Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, its author, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, declared, “If we will not endure a king as political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life.” Forty-five years later, President Franklin Roosevelt echoed that sentiment when he denounced “economic royalists” who had “created a new despotism.” He saw concentrated industrial and financial power as an “industrial dictatorship” that threatened democracy.
Standard Oil and other trusts became the target of antitrust lawsuits not just because they crushed competitors and raised consumer prices but also because they corrupted politics and exploited their employees. Breaking these giant companies into smaller units might help, but few reformers thought that government antitrust initiatives offered the prime solution to the imbalance of power so increasingly prevalent in modern capitalism. What was needed was greater governmental regulation and powerful trade unions.
In the Progressive era, the courts ruled that a wide variety of corporations and industries “affected with a public interest” might be subject to the kind of governmental regulation — covering prices, products and even labor standards — that in recent years has been restricted largely to electrical utilities and transport companies. Two decades later, the New Dealers sought to challenge monopoly power not only by a renewal of antitrust litigation but also by encouraging the growth of trade unionism so as to create an industrial democracy within the very heart of the corporation itself.
That antimonopoly tradition faded after World War II, collapsing into an arid discourse that asked but one question: Would the prevention of a merger or the breakup of a company lower consumer prices? The conservative law professor Robert Bork and a generation of like-minded lawyers and economists convinced the Reagan administration, as well as the courts, that antitrust blocked the creation of efficient, consumer-friendly forms of business. Even liberals like Lester Thurow and Robert Reich deemed antitrust irrelevant if U.S. companies were to compete abroad. In 1992, for the first time in a century, no antitrust plank appeared in the Democratic Party’s platform.
Mr. Biden has now correctly declared that this 40-year “experiment” has failed. “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism,” he proclaimed at the signing of the executive order. “It’s exploitation.”
Perhaps the most progressive part of the executive order is its denunciation of the way in which big corporations suppress wages. They do this both by monopolizing their labor market — think of the wage-setting pressures exerted by Walmart in a small town — and by forcing millions of their employees to sign noncompete agreements that prevent them from taking a better job in the same occupation or industry.
The president and his antitrust cabinet have turned an important aspect of traditional business competition on its head. For too long, those who advocate more competition among companies have offered employers a warrant for slashing wages and benefits, as well as outsourcing services and production. But Mr. Biden envisions a world in which businesses compete for workers. “If your employer wants to keep you, he or she should have to make it worth your while to stay,” Mr. Biden said on Friday. “That’s the kind of competition that leads to better wages and greater dignity of work.”
The nation’s antimonopoly tradition arises once more.
Nelson Lichtenstein (@NelsonLichtens1) is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.
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