Published in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Killing the Competition” examines how new monopolies are destroying open markets. The problem Lynn describes is no longer abstract: in the middle of this pandemic, a shortage of ventilators and protective gear in the United States has had fatal implications for patients and medical staff.
Fear, in any real market, is a natural emotion. There is the fear of not making a sale, not landing a job, not winning a client. Such fear is healthy, even constructive. It prods us to polish our wares, to refine our skills, and to conjure up—every so often—a wonder.
But these days, we see a different kind of fear in the eyes of America’s entrepreneurs and professionals. It’s a fear of the arbitrary edict, of the brute exercise of power. And the origins of this fear lie precisely in the fact that many if not most Americans can no longer count on open markets for their ideas and their work. Because of the overthrow of our antimonopoly laws a generation ago, we instead find ourselves subject to the ever more autocratic whims of the individuals who run our giant business corporations.
The equation is simple. In sector after sector of our political economy, there are still many sellers: many of us. But every day, there are fewer buyers: fewer of them. Hence, they enjoy more and more liberty to dictate terms—or simply to dictate.
Over the past four years of financial collapse, many of us have come to view markets as a fantastical scam: a giant mechanism geared to transfer our hard-earned dollars into the hands of a few select bankers. And when it comes to the Wall Street markets we rely on to trade our equities and debt and commodities, this sentiment is not all wrong.
But as every previous generation of Americans understood, a truly open market is one of our fundamental democratic institutions. We construct such markets to achieve some of our most basic rights: to deal with whom we choose, to work with whom we choose, to govern our communities and nation as we (along with our neighbors) choose.
And so, as every previous generation of Americans also understood, monopolization of our public markets is first and foremost a political crisis, amounting to nothing less than the reestablishment of private government. What is at stake is the survival of our democratic republic.