As Truth on the Market readers prepare to enjoy their Thanksgiving dinners, let me offer some (hopefully palatable) “food for thought” on a competition policy for the new Trump Administration. In referring to competition policy, I refer not just to lawsuits directed against private anticompetitive conduct, but more broadly to efforts aimed at curbing government regulatory barriers that undermine the competitive process.
Public regulatory barriers are a huge problem. Their costs have been highlighted by prestigious international research bodies such as the OECD and World Bank, and considered by the International Competition Network’s Advocacy Working Group. Government-imposed restrictions on competition benefit powerful incumbents and stymie entry by innovative new competitors. (One manifestation of this that is particularly harmful for American workers and denies job opportunities to millions of lower-income Americans is occupational licensing, whose increasing burdens are delineated in a substantial body of research – see, for example, a 2015 Obama Administration White House Report and a 2016 Heritage Foundation Commentary that explore the topic.) Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Justice Department (DOJ) antitrust officials should consider emphasizing “state action” lawsuits aimed at displacing entry barriers and other unwarranted competitive burdens imposed by self-interested state regulatory boards. When the legal prerequisites for such enforcement actions are not met, the FTC and the DOJ should ramp up their “competition advocacy” efforts, with the aim of convincing state regulators to avoid adopting new restraints on competition – and, where feasible, eliminating or curbing existing restraints.
The FTC and DOJ also should be authorized by the White House to pursue advocacy initiatives whose goal is to dismantle or lessen the burden of excessive federal regulations (such advocacy played a role in furthering federal regulatory reform during the Ford and Carter Administrations). To bolster those initiatives, the Trump Administration should consider establishing a high-level federal task force on procompetitive regulatory reform, in the spirit of previous reform initiatives. The task force would report to the president and include senior level representatives from all federal agencies with regulatory responsibilities. The task force could examine all major regulatory and statutory schemes overseen by Executive Branch and independent agencies, and develop a list of specific reforms designed to reduce federal regulatory impediments to robust competition. Those reforms could be implemented through specific regulatory changes or legislative proposals, as the case might require. The task force would have ample material to work with – for example, anticompetitive cartel-like output restrictions, such as those allowed under federal agricultural orders, are especially pernicious. In addition to specific cartel-like programs, scores of regulatory regimes administered by individual federal agencies impose huge costs and merit particular attention, as documented in the Heritage Foundation’s annual “Red Tape Rising” reports that document the growing burden of federal regulation (see, for example, the 2016 edition of Red Tape Rising).
With respect to traditional antitrust enforcement, the Trump Administration should emphasize sound, empirically-based economic analysis in merger and non-merger enforcement. They should also adopt a “decision-theoretic” approach to enforcement, to the greatest extent feasible. Specifically, in developing their enforcement priorities, in considering case selection criteria, and in assessing possible new (or amended) antitrust guidelines, DOJ and FTC antitrust enforcers should recall that antitrust is, like all administrative systems, inevitably subject to error costs. Accordingly, Trump Administration enforcers should be mindful of the outstanding insights provide by Judge (and Professor) Frank Easterbrook on the harm from false positives in enforcement (which are more easily corrected by market forces than false negatives), and by Justice (and Professor) Stephen Breyer on the value of bright line rules and safe harbors, supported by sound economic analysis. As to specifics, the DOJ and FTC should issue clear statements of policy on the great respect that should be accorded the exercise of intellectual property rights, to correct Obama antitrust enforcers’ poor record on intellectual property protection (see, for example, here). The DOJ and the FTC should also accord greater respect to the efficiencies associated with unilateral conduct by firms possessing market power, and should consider reissuing an updated and revised version of the 2008 DOJ Report on Single Firm Conduct).
With regard to international competition policy, procedural issues should be accorded high priority. Full and fair consideration by enforcers of all relevant evidence (especially economic evidence) and the views of all concerned parties ensures that sound analysis is brought to bear in enforcement proceedings and, thus, that errors in antitrust enforcement are minimized. Regrettably, a lack of due process in foreign antitrust enforcement has become a matter of growing concern to the United States, as foreign competition agencies proliferate and increasingly bring actions against American companies. Thus, the Trump Administration should make due process problems in antitrust a major enforcement priority. White House-level support (ensuring the backing of other key Executive Branch departments engaged in foreign economic policy) for this priority may be essential, in order to strengthen the U.S. Government’s hand in negotiations and consultations with foreign governments on process-related concerns.
Finally, other international competition policy matters also merit close scrutiny by the new Administration. These include such issues as the inappropriate imposition of extraterritorial remedies on American companies by foreign competition agencies; the harmful impact of anticompetitive foreign regulations on American businesses; and inappropriate attacks on the legitimate exercise of intellectual property by American firms (in particular, American patent holders). As in the case of process-related concerns, White House attention and broad U.S. Government involvement in dealing with these problems may be essential.
That’s all for now, folks. May you all enjoy your turkey and have a blessed Thanksgiving with friends and family.
This piece first appeared in Truth on the Market.