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2009-05-13 15:51:43|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Coming Soon: More Active Antitrust Policy




In an old post, How do the right and left differ?,I wrote, "The right sees competition as a pervasive feature of theeconomy and market power as typically limited both in magnitude andduration. The left sees large corporations with substantial degrees ofmonopoly power that need to be checked by active antitrust policy."



There is a good example of this regularity at work right now. An article in today's NY Times tells us,



PresidentObama’s top antitrust official this week plans to restore an aggressiveenforcement policy against corporations that use their market dominanceto elbow out competitors or to keep them from gaining market share. Thenew enforcement policy would reverse the Bush administration’sapproach, which strongly favored defendants against antitrust claims.It would restore a policy that led to the landmark antitrust lawsuitsagainst Microsoft and Intel in the 1990s.


Thisis precisely what worries me. In my judgment, the Microsoft case was apolicy error, and I fear that a more activist antitrust policy willmean more errors of this sort.


Here is what I wrote about the Microsoft case back in the February 16, 1998 issue of Fortune magazine:


Bob Dole vs. Microsoft (Go, Microsoft!)

Amidthe armies of experts on law, economics, and technology who have beendrawn into the battle over Microsoft's future, Bob Dole is a bit likeWaldo in the Sunday comics: out of place and easy to miss. But theformer Senator's small role in the Microsoft case is nonethelesssignificant. It speaks volumes about what's wrong with the government'scrusade against the software maker.

由法律、经济与技术组成的专家,卷入了对微软未来的论战。在这个团队中,Bob Dole有点象星期天连环画页中的瓦尔多(12世纪的法国宗教领袖,瓦尔多教派的创建者,于1184年被逐出教会--美女同事注):有些格格不入,又毫不起眼。但是这位前参议员在微软案件中扮演的小角色,却无疑具有重大的意义。他长篇大论地陈述了,政府对软件商的讨伐,是何等的错误。

NowI have nothing against Bob Dole--but he is no computer scientist. Noris he a specialist in the economics of industrial organization.Microsoft's rivals have recruited Dole as a foot soldier in their fightagainst the software giant simply for his political clout.

如今,我对Bob Dole本人可没有什么看法――但是,他不是一位计算机专家,也不是产业组织的经济学专家。微软的对手之所以找来Dole,让他在这场对抗软件巨头的战场上,充当一名步卒,仅仅是由于他的政治影响力。

Thestruggle centers on what Microsoft should be allowed to do with itsimmensely popular Windows operating system. The Justice Department doesnot trust market forces to limit Microsoft's hegemony. The government'slawyers claim that Microsoft is illegally attempting to expand itsmarket power by bundling Windows with its Internet browser.


Isit bad for consumers when a company bundles products together? Myfather bought a primitive car air conditioner and installed it himselfin our 1962 Buick. Now, cars and air conditioners are routinely soldtogether--and consumers are better served. A three-piece suit, aham-and-cheese sandwich, and a semester at Harvard are all made ofcomponents that could be sold separately. Not even the most zealousJustice Department lawyer would try to break up these products.


Whena company (Microsoft) has a monopoly over a valuable product (Windows),it appears to have consumers over a barrel, forcing them to buysomething they don't want. But why would it? A monopolist does not gainby bundling its valuable good with an undesirable one. The best way fora monopolist to profit is to provide precisely the product thatconsumers want and then charge the highest price it can get.


Althoughthe consumers-over-a-barrel theory doesn't work, economic theoristshave concocted more elaborate stories of how bundling may be adverse.They argue that a monopolist could deter potential competitors bybundling disparate products. For instance, if Microsoft can makeapplications such as the browser part of its operating system, othersoftware firms might have less incentive to develop new and betterapplications. But these theories offer little guidance to those makingpolicy. If bundling is often beneficial but sometimes not, policymakersneed to be able to tell which is which before they start regulating howcompanies market their products. They can't.


Thisbrings us back to Dole. When Microsoft's rivals hired him to lobby,they exposed their cynicism. They are betting the legal system willdecide Microsoft's future based not only on economic principles butalso on popular perception. What could be better in the court of publicopinion than siccing a respected friend of business on the world'srichest man?


Usingantitrust laws to regulate business practices like bundling is notlikely to benefit consumers. Even if the world's smartest economistsdid the regulating, they would often get things wrong. And given therealities of how policy is actually made inside the Beltway, things aremore likely to go wrong than right.


Whatcompany will dominate the software industry in the next century? Idon't know, and neither does anyone else. I hope it is the company withthe best programmers. I fear it may be the company with the bestlawyers.


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