Austrian economist Bob Murphy recently appeared on Timcast IRL. Among the topics discussed, there was a brief discussion of anti-trust laws that was left with a dissatisfying “I-guess-there’s-nothing-we-can-do-about-it” answer.
The argument that host Tim Pool made for anti-trust laws rests upon the assumption that in a free market, successful market actors can accumulate so much wealth that they exercise “power” just as oppressive as that of a tyrannical government. Pool cited as an example Blackrock buying up houses and using its vast accumulated resources to effectively outbid any smaller or individual bidders.
Pool said that companies like Blackrock will acquire assets by offering “insane sums of money,” i.e., paying well over the market price. Eventually, the large company or a few of the largest companies “own everything” and the common folk “own nothing.” Pool asks Murphy if he would support anti-trust laws to address such a situation.
(Editor's note: the discussion begins around the 20:15 mark)
Murphy gave all the correct answers but didn’t elaborate upon them. He points out, for example, that we aren’t operating in a free market, specifically mentioning bailouts, and that it never helps to give the government more power. Pool agreed empowering the government doesn’t work but concluded there is nothing anyone can do about undesirable economic outcomes. Anyone watching would assume this is an inescapable defect of the free market. We must either live with it or tolerate government intervention.
That’s the opposite of the truth.
First, as Murphy said, the US economy is not remotely a free market. I would add that it hasn’t been since at least the New Deal, when a fundamental, constitutional change took place.
No longer is economic activity regulated solely by laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. Instead, a plethora of executive branch bureaucrats write enforceable regulations which are at most overseen by a Congressional committee, but which largely bypass the adversarial process of passing a law per the Constitution.
These agencies don’t protect property rights but instead micromanage the way businesses are run for all sorts of ends, legitimate and otherwise. This adds cost, stifles innovation, and inevitably succumbs to regulatory capture. All of these effects tilt the playing field towards larger firms and away from smaller or new competitors.
Monetary inflation and bailouts also contribute to the problem. Pool says that large firms like Blackrock pay far more than the market price “because they can.” But how can Blackrock afford to give away its wealth?
If Blackrock pays $230,000 for a house worth only $200,000 (Pool’s example), they have transferred $30,000 in wealth from themselves to the seller of the house. The seller has gained $230,000 in cash while Blackrock has gained only $200,000 in real estate.
That the property in question may appreciate enough to overcome such a loss is largely the result of monetary inflation. Houses are depreciable goods. They wear out and are eventually torn down and replaced. In a free market, the price of a house should go down over time (all other things being equal*), just like the price of an automobile.
Conversely, honest money appreciates over time. It is the natural tendency for prices to fall as society produces more output with the same or less inputs. That’s why prices fell over the course of the 19th century under various iterations of the gold standard. It is only monetary inflation that causes prices to rise even as society becomes more productive.
With an honest monetary system, it would not be profitable for any firm, no matter how big, to buy houses at prices well above their market value. Doing so would make the firm poorer over time and those it bought the house from richer – precisely the opposite result of the big firm “owning everything” and the common folk “owning nothing.”
But even with our present monetary system, under which real estate prices are bid up to absurd levels during inflation-infused bubbles, there are inevitable busts. When those occur, any firm that acquired substantial real estate holdings at inflated prices should go bankrupt, its assets turned over to new owners in bankruptcy court. However, for the past several decades, this market result has increasingly been overridden by “too big to fail” bailouts. It didn’t start with the 2008 financial crisis; the 1979 Chrysler bailout and 1998 Long Term Capital Management bailouts are notable previous examples.
Bailouts don’t just encourage reckless behavior; they reverse natural market outcomes. If not for the 2008-9 TARP bailouts, the country’s largest firms, including Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Bank of America, and others would either have gone bankrupt or been significantly downsized. Smaller firms that didn’t engage in irresponsible behavior would have acquired their assets, their market share, or both. That would have been the free market result.
Incidentally, while Blackrock itself was already a big player in financial markets before the 2008 crisis, it only became the behemoth it is today by first encouraging its clients to purchase the toxic mortgage-back securities at the center of the meltdown and then becoming the Federal Reserve’s partner in bailing out those same firms. That cosey relationship has continued right through the current “Covid-19” economic crisis.
In other words, nothing about Pool’s scenario represents a free market result, and anti-trust laws attempting to counteract it are the epitome of the government “breaking your leg and handing you a crutch.” Just as the welfare crutch brings with it little relief and all sorts of unintended, negative consequences, anti-trust laws typically result in consumers paying more for the same products and society becoming less productive overall.
Even more important, supporting the use of anti-trust laws against dominant corporations is a strategic blunder for anyone who believes in private property and free markets. Yes, they might be used to temporarily hinder large corporations whose behavior we don’t like. But getting the remnant who support freedom on board with this state intervention will forever set the precedent that even the most ardent supporters of laissez-faire recognize the need for intervention under some circumstances.
The enemies of freedom think strategically. That’s why they’ve been winning for the past century or more. When the TARP bailouts occurred, there was a loud minority on the pro-market side saying, “let these corporations go bankrupt. Let the market work.” That those statements are a matter of record is a thorn in the side of the interventionists.
This time around, they would like nothing better than to have even the most uncompromising advocates for laissez-faire on the record supporting anti-trust laws or other government interventions. That would take laissez-faire off the table forever in terms of future debate regarding private property and freedom vs. central planning and state intervention.
Don’t give the central planners that win.
The answer to grotesque economic outcomes is not more government intervention. The answer is to allow for a market-based monetary system (repeal capital gains taxes on competing currencies like precious metals and crypto), prohibit future bailouts, and repeal the New Deal root and branch.
*A property far from convenient shopping, recreation, schools, and other amenities which later development provides nearby may appreciate in value overall even as the house itself depreciates, but this is the exception rather than the rule.