JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Paul Greenberg Larry ElderJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellWilliam PfaffRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Political Cartoons
Left, Right & Center

Jewish World Review / June 19, 1998 / 25 Sivan, 5758

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell Dumbing down anti-trust

FEW THINGS ARE MORE FRUSTRATING than trying to make sense of antitrust cases. That is not because they are so complicated but because they abound with undefined words and phrases.

Murky expressions, charged with emotions but very light on specifics, are the norm -- "predatory" behavior, "market power," "dominance." Back when I taught economics, I used to write on students' papers: "Specify, do not characterize."

Is it Microsoft or the
government that's out-of-control?
As Milton Friedman has said many times, sloppy writing is usually a result of sloppy thinking. The current antitrust case against Microsoft is no exception.

Even the usually intelligent Weekly Standard has a mushy article by Irwin Stelzer on the Microsoft case. The first 6 paragraphs contain nothing of substance about the issues in the case but instead try to show that the Justice Department attorney suing Microsoft -- Joel Klein -- is a nice guy, rather than a rabid, anti-business zealot.

The 7th paragraph seeks to show that former judge Robert H. Bork -- an attorney for Netscape, one of Microsoft's competitors -- is also a nice guy. I know of no reason whatever to doubt it. But, since I don't have a nice-meter, I also have no way of knowing whether either of these gentlemen is nicer than Bill Gates, not quite as nice, or whether it is too close to call.

Is this the Weekly Standard or the Oprah Winfrey show? An earlier generation used to refer to the greening of America. This is the mushing of America.

There are two very different questions involved in the Microsoft case: (1) Whether Microsoft has violated existing antitrust laws or judicial precedents and (2) whether these laws and precedents make any sense from the standpoint of the consumers.

As regards the legalities, antitrust cases go on for years -- sometimes more than a decade -- precisely because figuring out the law and the judicial precedents is like reading tea leaves. What this also ought to suggest is that antitrust law is not really law in the sense of rules laid out in advance to tell you what you can and cannot do.

If an army of lawyers and layers of judges take so many years to figure out how the law applies, then is it really law in the sense of rules that anyone could follow?

How will the conusmer be better off if the government wins its case against Microsoft? Antitrust laws are justified politically by the claim that they are protecting consumers from being exploited by monopolies. In practice, they protect rival businesses who are losing out to some company that is winning more customers than they are.

What is Microsoft doing that is hurting customers, as distinguished from hurting other businesses that would like to have those customers? It is amazing how little attention is paid to that question.

Can anyone seriously believe that consumers will be better off if the rapid pace of innovation in the computer industry is slowed down by having innovations like Windows 98 dragged into court before they can even reach the market? All too predictably, the Justice Department's case against Microsoft has been followed by a Federal Trade Commission case against computer chip manufacturer Intel. Does anyone doubt that more and more governemnt lawyers will be trying to make a name for themselves with similar lawsuits if these two succeed?

Irwin Stelzer says that "where markets fail to operate competitively, the government is bound to do one of two things" -- regulate the industry or use antitrust laws to make it more competitive. The doctrine that "market failure" justifies government intervention might make sense if there were no such thing as government failure.

But does anyone send in a pinch-hitter whenever Mark McGwire strikes out? What would make anyone think that the pinch-hitter cannot strike out, much less that he is more likely to hit a home run than Mark McGwire? Very often we use far more logic in sports than in politics.

If the computer industry represents "market failure," what would represent market success? Where else have products been improved more rapidly or prices dropped more substantially?

Is the government such a model of success that it is the automatic pinch-hitter for any market that falls short of perfection as depicted in economic models and textbooks?

6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.