During the Gilded Age, so-called “captains of industry” such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan led an industrial revolution that transformed the nation with technological innovation, creating for Americans unparalleled improvements in the average standard of living and amassing great personal fortunes in the process. The spectacular success—and enormous power—of these newly minted tycoons earned them the sobriquet “Robber Baron,” even as their ruthless business tactics, such as Rockefeller’s cartelization of the oil industry through trusts, fostered new laws to regulate anti-competitive business practices, notably the 1890 Sherman Act. These measures are called “antitrust” laws, an often-forgotten tribute to the dynastic Standard Oil Trust, which at its peak controlled the refining of 90 to 95 percent of all oil produced in the United States.
The Progressive Era was devoted in significant part to curbing the predatory conduct exhibited by large corporations, especially those with monopoly power, such as railroads. Railroad mogul William H. Vanderbilt—at the time the richest man on earth—typified the arrogance of some industrialists when he reportedly exclaimed, in 1882, “The public be damned.” Historians sometimes depict the Robber Barons as villains, but this ignores the tremendous contributions these entrepreneurs made to the creation of the world we take for granted in the 20th century: urban living with nationwide transportation and communication, skyscrapers, electricity, mass-produced goods, recorded music, the automobile, and the consumer economy.
Notwithstanding the considerable benefits of “Big Business,” there were also abuses, including price-fixing, restraint of trade, and political corruption. Laissez-faire economic theorists and devotees of classical liberalism tend to minimize these and the likelihood that businesses, when left to their own devices, will abuse their economic power; reasoning that free-market dynamics—price competition and market entry—will suffice to constrain predatory conduct.
One cannot fairly review the history of the late 19th century, however, without acknowledging the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Among free-market absolutists, this aphorism is generally applied only to political power, but the principle—based as it is upon human nature, and not merely the workings of politics—applies to all human activity. Concentrations of economic power also qualify, and whether due to artificial or “natural” barriers to entry, monopolies can and do exist.
Antitrust analysis associated with the University of Chicago (the “Chicago School” developed by Aaron Director, Robert Bork, and Richard Posner, among others) tends to be unconcerned with companies’ unilateral action and is skeptical of the existence of barriers to entry, believing that market dominance is ultimately an indication of economic efficiency. If the benchmark for government intervention is maximizing consumer welfare, the Chicago School asserted, then the only conduct deserving antitrust scrutiny is inter-firm (or “horizontal”) collusion.
I don’t wish to challenge the premises of the Chicago School’s antitrust theory (although others have), but the categorical assumptions that informed its analysis may need to be re-examined in light of the markedly different conditions evident in certain industries dominated—not just domestically, but globally—by a single firm.
Consider Silicon Valley, the cradle of the so-called “gig economy.”
The New Robber Barons
In terms of stock market value, the top five companies worldwide are the technology giants Apple, Alphabet (Google’s corporate parent), Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon. In the technology industry, these firms—although hardly interchangeable—are the new Robber Barons.
Apple’s famously based its business model on a “closed platform,” compelling users to accede to its vertical integration of software, parts, apps, and iTunes inventory. Amazon, with sales exceeding its 12 largest online competitors combined, captures 46 percent of all online shopping. Aggressive pricing—to the extent of consistently sacrificing profitability—and sharp competitive practices such as below-cost pricing of ebooks to promote its Kindle sales have enabled Amazon to swamp its competitors in an expanding array of product lines.
Regardless of profitability, investors value these firms primarily because of their sheer scale—market dominance within the relevant segments. Uber and Tesla, each with a market capitalization exceeding General Motors, have never earned even a single penny of profit, defying traditional models of valuation. Investors presumably anticipate that monopoly (or near-monopoly) status will eventually yield monopoly profits.
And how have the new Robber Barons been behaving with their sky-high market valuations, overwhelming market shares, and hoards of cash? In a word, poorly. If actions were words, they would be parroting Vanderbilt’s infamous declaration.
Amid great controversy, Google summarily fired an engineer, James Damore, for thoughtfully questioning the assumptions of the company’s diversity policies. More recently, Google appeared to direct the dismissal of a scholar from the New America Foundation, a progressive Washington think tank backed by Google, for praising fines levied against the company by European regulators for antitrust violations. These are the actions of an intolerant bully.
In our digital world, the Internet and websites have become the indispensable medium for both commerce and political expression, serving as the modern equivalent of the printing press, Yellow Pages, mail delivery, checking account, and public library—combined. Companies servicing the Internet—and especially search engines—are de facto public utilities, with an obligation to operate fairly, responsibly, and without viewpoint discrimination. Unfortunately, the new Robber Barons have fallen appallingly short of this ideal.
For example, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been accused of censoring users’ posts; Google (through its ad placement service) has bullied conservative websites to alter their content or face financial retribution; online payment facilitator PayPal and domain administrator GoDaddy have banished or withdrawn funding services for websites whose content they disapprove of; and Google has reportedly skewed search results to omit references objectionable to certain Islamic organizations.
Most ominously of all, as reported by Paula Bolyard in PJ Media, Google is working with a coalition of liberal groups—including the discredited Southern Poverty Law Center—to monitor conservative websites for “hate events.” In reality, they’re policing expression of views they find disagreeable, such as opposition to the LGBT agenda, criticism of radical Islam, or support for more stringent immigration controls. The goal is to blacklist “offensive” sites, smear them as “hate groups,” and ultimately to deny them access to digital advertisers, online donations, domain registrars, or similar tech support necessary for sites to function. In other words, Google is conspiring with Left-wing activists to suppress their political opponents.
‘Regulate Them Into Submission’
With the unprecedented ability to control the content and operation of websites, a handful of tech companies wield greater power than governments do, with little transparency and no accountability. This astonishing concentration of power should concern all citizens, regardless of political persuasion. Yet, with a few exceptions, liberals have been strangely quiet. The reason is obvious: The Left has given the new Robber Barons a pass, because they share a Progressive political agenda, as reflected by Apple’s $1 million donation to the SPLC, and the hyper-partisan direction of the Washington Post since its purchase by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
Should conservatives, blinded by their allegiance to the free market, condone this partisan perfidy? Increasingly, commentators on the Right recommend treating Silicon Valley behemoths as the monopolies they are and, in Kurt Schlichter’s words, either break them up or “regulate them into submission.” President Theodore Roosevelt earned the nickname “trustbuster” for breaking up James J. Hill’s and J. P. Morgan’s notorious railroad monopoly, the Northern Securities Company. In the same vein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions should investigate the nefarious conduct of the new Robber Barons.
Silicon Valley’s leftist business leaders have a peculiar notion of “creative destruction”; rather than rendering prior paradigms obsolete, they apparently seek to eliminate free speech instead.