Saturday, August 22, 2009

Are Antitrust Laws Uniquely Unfair?

I have a tendency to believe that antitrust laws are unfair. The main reasons for this belief:

1. The "rule of reason" that applies to so many banned practices is subject to a wide degree of interpretation.

2. Compliance with antitrust law is so hard that it increases expenses of those who wish to comply. In other words, they have to hire lawyers and legal consultants.

3. The banned practices that are not subject to the "rule of reason" are not necessarily pernicious and, in my view, do not by themselves merit either civil or criminal prosecution. These practices, called "per se" violations include such practices as price fixing and collective negotiating by, say, small retailers who want to band together to get better terms from credit card merchants. (Now, I do think practices like price fixing can be abusive, but they almost always involve some other illegal activity--e.g., extortion or fraud--when they are abusive. Prosecutions and lawsuits could be made on those grounds alone.)

If my objections are valid, however, I have to resolve another question: are antitrust laws "beyond the pale" in their unfairness?

My chief objections lie in that I propose antitrust laws are vague (reasons 1 and 2 above) and that they have a chilling effect on what are essentially defensible business practices (reason 3 above, but also reason 1).

But aren't most laws "vague" in the sense that some of their elements are open to interpretation? Don't most laws have a "chilling effect" on borderline cases? It's a question of line drawing.

I still think on policy grounds I am justified in being critical of antitrust laws (although, as I said in this post, a wholesale repeal of the laws would be unwise). But I wonder if they are in and of themselves unfairly vague.

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