Thursday, June 19, 2003

Rights and Reason: Antitrust and Morality

CAC has long maintained the antitrust laws, especially as applied today, violate numerous parts of the Constitution, such as the First, Seventh, and Ninth Amendments. But what about the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery. George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen—the 14th Volokh conspirator—suggests essentially that in a post today:
Isn't the application of antitrust law almost a kind of slavery?

Take an athlete -- say Michael Jordan -- who monopolizes his own services and restricts his output to the market. It is hard to find a clearer case of market power, not to mention barriers to entry. Wouldn't it be a kind of slavery to go "trust-busting" and force MJ to do more commercials, or play another year of basketball? I say yes.

But is the corporate case really that much different? What if some people organize into a group and do the same thing? How can it be justified to force them to produce more output? Under some economic assumptions, the output restrictions of monopoly cause more factors of production to switch into other sectors (though then you have to wonder if anyone measures the net output restriction, the answer is they don't). Under other assumptions, there is no switching. Output restriction simply means that the monopolist and its employees work less hard.

And we are back to antitrust policy being a kind of quasi-slavery. In my view, you don't have to be a Bob Nozick to be worried about this.
This is an argument CAC raised in some of its earliest comment letters on the physician antitrust issue, but in recent filings we've decided to highlight the First and Ninth Amendment problems. But maybe more should be made of the "antitrust as slavery" argument, since it cuts right to the long-term impact of these policies on businessmen. Indeed, with the creeping reemergence of socialized medicine via prescription drug "benefits," the time may be rapidly approaching when people will need to look at the healthcare issue for what it is: The government trying to enslave healthcare producers for the sake of consumers. In a sense, it's really no different than the economic model of slavery employed by Southern plantation owners in the antebellum era.

This is not to suggest American doctors are facing the prospect of being physically bullwhipped into lifelong servitude, but keep in mind slavery was kept in the South principally for economic reasons. Plantation owners were simply unwilling to part with their cheap labor force kept in place by government policies which refused to protect the rights of the enslaved people. The same is rapidly becoming true of physicians, who find themselves with a "moral" obligation to provide services regardless of the economic cost to them.

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