Monopoly Power and High Tech – Wither the Upper Hand?

Giant, high tech firms with vast earnings and even greater stock market valuations are the cutting edge of evolving capitalism. I have suggested in previous commentaries that market power can lead a company to be placed under obligations to seek the common good. In the U.S., long after anti-trust officials in the E.U. looked askance on the market power of Google and Facebook, the U.S. Department of Justice has opened a broad review of whether dominant technology firms are unlawfully stifling competition.

The review will examine on-line platforms as gateways to commerce in internet searches, social media and retail services.

One point of worry for me is the ability of internet firms to suck in advertising revenues and so drive older forms of media – print media – into economic failure and closure, directing our politics towards demagoguery, delusions and dumbing down our people.

I have noted before that the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1876 case of Munn v. Illinois, a case of cartel monopoly power over grain storage elevators in Chicago, provides an ethically based reason for restraining companies which stand at the gateway of commerce and take a toll to permit passage of goods. The Court asserted that a willing assumption of monopoly power brought upon a company acquiescence to the right of society to assert a license over the company to take care that the good of the public was not harmed.

The Court held by imputation that if a company did not want to operate under such a restricting license from public authority, then it need only not seek monopoly power. Instead, the company was free to choose to do business facing the hazard of competition.

The policy of the Court was to ensure that lawful commercial arrangements would not be misused and lead to inequitable outcomes in practice; that financial and economic power would be diffused widely and decentralized. This policy was the natural corollary to the principle of constitutional democracy that government power must be disbursed across institutions where one would check another from aggrandizement and tyranny.

I am reminded of the admonition of James Madison in commenting on the provisions of our U.S. Constitution: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Where there are no ethics, law must safeguard our wellbeing. Or to put it slightly differently: where there is no virtue, power assumes control and must be disciplined by law – even in capitalism.