VOLUME 168, ISSUE 7 June 2020

Articles

The Chicago School of antitrust has benefitted from a great deal of law office history, written by admiring advocates rather than more dispassionate observers. This essay attempts a more neutral examination of the ideology, political impulses, and economics that produced the School and that account for its durability. The origins of the Chicago School lie in a strong commitment to libertarianism and nonintervention. Economic models of perfect competition best suited these goals. The early strength of the Chicago School was that it provided simple, convincing answers to everything that was wrong with antitrust policy in the 1960s, when antitrust was characterized by over-enforcement, poor quality economics or none at all, and many internal contradictions. The Chicago School’s greatest weakness is that it did not keep up. Its leading advocates either spurned or ignored important developments in economics that gave a better accounting of an economy that was increasingly characterized by significant product differentiation, rapid innovation, networking, and strategic behavior. The Chicago School’s protest that newer models of the economy lacked testability lost its credibility as industrial economics experienced an empirical renaissance, nearly all of it based on models of imperfect competition. What kept Chicago alive was the financial support of firms and others who stood to profit from less intervention. Properly designed antitrust enforcement is a public good. Its beneficiaries—consumers—are individually small, numerous, scattered, and diverse. Those who stand to profit from nonintervention were fewer in number, individually much more powerful, and much more united in their message. As a result, the Chicago School went from being a model of enlightened economic policy to an economically outdated but nevertheless powerful tool of regulatory capture.
A nascent competitor is a firm whose prospective innovation represents a serious threat to an incumbent. Protecting such competition is a critical mission for antitrust law, given the outsized role of unproven outsiders as innovators and the uniquely potent threat they often pose to powerful entrenched firms. In this Article, we identify nascent competition as a distinct analytical category and outline a program of antitrust enforcement to protect it. We make the case for enforcement even where the ultimate competitive significance of the target is uncertain, and explain why a contrary view is mistaken as a matter of policy and precedent. Depending on the facts, troubling conduct can be scrutinized under ordinary merger law or as unlawful maintenance of monopoly, an approach that has several advantages. In distinguishing harmful from harmless acquisitions, certain evidence takes on heightened importance. Evidence of an acquirer’s anticompetitive plan, as revealed through internal communications or subsequent conduct, is particularly probative. After-the-fact scrutiny is sometimes necessary as new evidence comes to light. Finally, our suggested approach poses little risk of dampening desirable investment in startups, as it is confined to acquisitions by those firms most threatened by nascent rivals.
There is a growing concern over concentration and market power in a broad range of industrial sectors in the United States, particularly in markets served by digital platforms. At the same time, reports and studies around the world have called for increased competition enforcement against digital platforms, both by conventional antitrust authorities and through increased use of regulatory tools. This Article examines how, despite the challenges of implementing effective rules, regulatory approaches could help to address certain concerns about digital platforms by complementing traditional antitrust enforcement. We explain why introducing light- handed, industry-specific regulation could increase competition and reduce barriers to entry in markets served by digital platforms while better preserving the benefits they bring to consumers.
The extent to which horizontal mergers deliver competitive benefits that offset any potential for competitive harm is a critical issue of antitrust enforcement. This Article evaluates economic analyses of merger efficiencies and concludes that a substantial body of work casts doubt on their presumptive existence and magnitude. That has two significant implications. First, the current methods used by the federal antitrust agencies to determine whether to investigate a horizontal merger likely rests on an overly-optimistic view of the existence of cognizable efficiencies, which we believe has the effect of justifying market-concentration thresholds that are likely too lax. Second, criticisms of the current treatment of efficiencies as too demanding—for example, that antitrust agencies and reviewing courts require too much of merging parties in demonstrating the existence of efficiencies—are misplaced, in part because they fail to recognize that full-blown merger investigations and subsequent litigation are focused on the mergers that are most likely to cause harm.
For decades, the major United States airlines have raised passenger fares through coordinated fare-setting when their route networks overlap, according to the United States Department of Justice. Through its review of company documents and testimony, the Justice Department found that when major airlines have overlapping route networks, they respond to rivals’ price changes across multiple routes and thereby discourage competition from their rivals. A recent empirical study reached a similar conclusion: It found that fares have increased for this reason on more than 1000 routes nationwide and even that American and Delta, two airlines with substantial route overlaps, have come close to cooperating perfectly on routes they both serve.
Patent holdup has proven one of the most controversial topics in innovation policy, in part because companies with a vested interest in denying its existence have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to debunk it. Notwithstanding a barrage of political and academic attacks, both the general theory of holdup and its practical application in patent law remain valid and pose significant concerns for patent policy. Patent and antitrust law have made significant strides in the past fifteen years in limiting the problem of patent holdup. But those advances are currently under threat from the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, which has reversed prior policies and broken with the Federal Trade Commission to downplay the significance of patent holdup while undermining private efforts to prevent it. Ironically, the effect of the Antitrust Division’s actions is to create a greater role for antitrust law in stopping patent holdup. We offer some suggestions for moving in the right direction.
We explore the implications of the widely accepted understanding that competition law is common—or “judge-made”—law. Specifically, we ask how the rule of reason in antitrust law should be shaped and implemented, not just to guide correct application of existing law to the facts of a case, but also to enable courts to participate constructively in the common law-like evolution of antitrust law in the light of changes in economic learning and business and judicial experience. We explore these issues in the context of a recently decided case, Ohio v. American Express, and conclude that the Supreme Court, not only made several substantive errors, but also did not apply the rule of reason in a way that enabled an effective common law-like evolution of antitrust law.
The conservative critique of antitrust law has been highly influential. It has facilitated a transformation of antitrust standards of conduct since the 1970s and led to increasingly more permissive standards of conduct. While these changes have taken many forms, all were influenced by the view that competition law was over-deterrent. Critics relied heavily on the assumption that the durability and costs of false positive errors far exceeded the costs of false negatives. Many of the assumptions that guided this retrenchment of antitrust rules were mistaken and advances in law and economic analysis have rendered them anachronistic, particularly with respect to exclusionary conduct. Continued reliance on what are now exaggerated fears of “false positives,” and failure adequately to consider the harm from “false negatives,” has led courts to impose excessive burdens of proof on plaintiffs that belie both sound economic analysis and well-established procedural norms. The result is not better antitrust standards, but instead an unwarranted bias towards non-intervention that creates a tendency toward false negatives, particularly in modern markets characterized by economies of scale and network effects. In this article, we explain how these erroneous assumptions about markets, institutions, and conduct have distorted the antitrust decision-making process and produced an excessive risk of false negatives in exclusionary conduct cases involving firms attempting to achieve, maintain, or enhance dominance or substantial market power. To redress this imbalance, we integrate modern economic analysis and decision theory with the foundational conventions of antitrust law, which has long relied on probability, presumptions, and reasonable inferences to provide effective means for evaluating competitive effects and resolving antitrust claims.
A symposium examining the contributions of the post-Chicago School provides an appropriate opportunity to offer some thoughts on both the past and the future of antitrust. This afterword reviews the excellent papers presented with an eye toward appreciating the contributions and limitations of both the Chicago School, in terms of promoting the consumer welfare standard and embracing price theory as the preferred mode of economic analysis, and the post-Chicago School, with its emphasis on game theory and firm-level strategic conduct. It then explores two emerging trends, specifically neo-Brandeisian advocacy for abandoning consumer welfare as the sole goal of antitrust and the increasing emphasis on empirical analyses.
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