The Business War Against Competition
by Butler Shaffer
This article is excerpted from the introduction to In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 (2008).
Until relatively recent times, the symbiotic relationship existing between economic and political institutions has only been vaguely comprehended. It has been popular to view these two major sectors of American society as having a generally antagonistic relationship, with political institutions serving as a countervailing force to economic influence.
This view is reflected in the traditional conception of economic history that suggests the American business system had, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, maintained an existence largely independent of, and indifferent to, the interests of the American public. The business community in this era is seen by many as ruthless and hegemonic, exercising nearly unlimited corporate power that threatened the very foundations of a free and competitive economic system.
Those who hold to this view insist that the interests of the public required the imposition of political controls to regulate such matters as trade practices, pricing policies, and the size and entry of business firms in the market. It supports a consensus that government regulation of economic activity represents a national policy commitment to elevating the “ethical plane” of competition in order that market influences may more freely serve some vaguely defined “general welfare.” One business scholar has reflected this attitude well:
It is not always safe to leave business to its own devices; experience has shown that its freedom will sometimes be abused. … Competitors have been harassed by malicious and predatory tactics, handicapped by discrimination, excluded from markets and sources of supply, and subjected to intimidation, coercion, and physical violence. Consumers have been victimized by short weights and measures, by adulteration, and by misrepresentation of quality and price; they have been forced to contribute to the profits of monopoly. …