Whatever happened to the antitrust movement?

Antitrust legislation is the single most important kind of economic legislation in a republic. As every important republican thinker since the 19th century has realized, an economy governed by price-fixers and monopolies is corrosive to self-government and the independence of the citizenry.

Of the two major candidates, Barack Obama is the only one, as far as I can tell, who’s made serious public statements on antitrust. Here’s what he said in May: “We’re going to have an antitrust division in the Justice Department that actually believes in antitrust law. We haven’t had that for the last seven, eight years.”

Back in January, experts thought Obama was just OK on antitrust, and that the “pro-market emphasis” at the University of Chicago had probably had some effect on him. (Oddly, the implication seems to be that antitrust law is anti-market, instead of pro-market as it certainly is.) That said, Obama has a pretty decent statement about the issue, and he seems to understand what’s at stake.

Despite that fact, the last president with a good antitrust record was, of all people, William Howard Taft. (Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, suspended the Sherman Antitrust Act with his National Industrial Recovery Act.) Needless to say, the current administration wasn’t enthusiastic about enforcing anti-monopoly laws.

It would certainly be nice to see this made a national issue again. As Ralph Nader rightly puts it: “The way to really deal with small businesses is to [enforce] competition policy. They never talk about enforcement of antitrust laws. Small business is the principle victim of monopolistic policies and price fixing. The Justice Department is asleep.”

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