Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Total Bureaucratic Awareness

The Federal Trade Commission has some sort of vendetta against private trade associations. Last year, they went after the National Academy of Arbitrators and the American Institute of Conservators of Historic and Artistic Works. In the past month, they’ve added the Indiana Household Movers and Warehousemen and the Institute of Store Planners to their target list. Collectively, these groups have about as much economic power as a Starbucks franchise, yet the FTC views their actions as akin to the political machinations of Tammany Hall.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the FTC annual report on these trade association cases:

The FTC pursued significant investigations involving the rules of conduct for various professional associations. Agreements among professionals that limit competition among themselves, often under the guise of professional association by-laws or codes of conduct, harms consumers much like 'smoke-filled room' conspiracies.

What we’re talking about here are professional ethics codes, documents which are well publicized. In the case of the National Academy of Arbitrators, the ethics code challenged by the FTC was in force for more than 30 years. That’s hardly the product of a “smoke-filled room,” which by inference refers to a conspiracy to keep information from the public. Quite the contrary, ethics codes are designed to alert the public as to common rules adopted by a given profession. Only dangerously unqualified FTC staff lawyers could find a conspiracy in this.

And if you think the FTC staff is intelligent, consider this line from their report vowing to persecute more trade associations in the future:

The FTC is pursuing other potentially harmful restrictions imposed by professional associations, or boards, using means including sophisticated 'spider' software to search the Internet for restrictions of this kind.

Yes, kids, the FTC just said they’re using Google to seek out new antitrust cases. If this doesn’t convince you antitrust is nothing more than a government witch-hunt, nothing will.

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