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Unleashing a Monster

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


What’s happening to the world? The usually sensible Peggy Noonan is calling on government to break up Facebook and other “big tech” companies chiefly, it seems, because Mark Zuckerberg strikes her as an “imperious twerp” (“Overthrow the Prince of Facebook,” June 7).

Being an imperious twerp is not an antitrust offense.

Ms. Noonan does mention other reasons for calling on government to break up private companies – companies which, by the way, unlike government can compel no one to do business with them. One such reason – gasp! – is that Facebook and other big tech companies are enlarging their lobbying efforts. Such efforts not only do not violate antitrust regulations, punishing firms for exerting such efforts does violate the First amendment.

Nor should the dogs of antitrust be sicced on big tech on grounds that Facebook is “starving journalism of ad revenues,” for when this complaint is translated into economics we get “Facebook is outcompeting traditional forms of journalism.” This competition – if antitrust really is meant to protect competition rather than competitors – is also not an antitrust offense. Ditto for “doing in possible competitors” by offering products that consumers prefer to the offerings of possible competitors.

As for “monopolistically acquiring” competitors, Ms. Noonan offers no evidence that Facebook’s acquisitions enable it to behave monopolistically – that is, to raise prices and reduce outputs in ways that harm consumers. Acquisitions aren’t monopolistic simply by being labeled as such, or even by increasing the size and success of the acquiring firms.

If Facebook and other big tech companies have violated customers’ privacy rights or engaged in other such criminal activities, by all means prosecute. But do so under the applicable criminal statutes – statutes that do not include those of antitrust.

Were Ms. Noonan to study the history of antitrust, she would learn this sorry fact: it is largely one in which successful entrepreneurial firms are demonized and penalized, for the purpose of shielding older rivals from new forms of competition, by antitrust bureaucrats and judges who truly do behave like imperious twerps.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030


My first op-ed, in 1996, in the WSJ was to defend Bill Gates and Microsoft against charges of monopolization. (Marc Andreessen’s father wrote to me afterward to scold me for misspelling his son’s first name.)


UPDATE: Bruce Yandle just e-mailed me in response to this letter. I share here the heart of Bruce’s response:

Noonan’s logic, if applied elsewhere in government, would be justification for unlimited persecution of the momentarily uncouth and unpopular by right minded people in power.

Well said indeed, Bruce.