Libertarian History/Philosophy

Monopoly Means Aggression, Not Just Limited Choices

Impossible to have one without the other

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The concepts monopoly and aggression are intimately related, like lock andkey, or mother and son. You cannot fully understand the first without understanding the second.

Most of us are taught to think of a monopoly as simply any lone seller of a good or service, but this definition is fraught with problems, as Murray Rothbard, Austrian economists generally, and others have long pointed out. It overlooks, for example, the factor of potential competition. If a lone seller knows that someone could challenge his "monopoly" by entering the market, that will tend to influence the seller's pricing and service policies. Is he then really a monopolist even if, for the time being, he's alone in the market?

In deciding who is a monopolist, we also face the problem of defining the relevant market. The Federal Trade Commission once charged the top few ready-to-eat breakfast cereal companies with monopolizing "the market." But what market? The FTC meant the market for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. But that's not all that people eat or can eat for breakfast. If you define the relevant market to include bacon and eggs; oatmeal; yogurt; English muffins and butter; bagels, lox, and cream cheese; breakfast burritos; and anything else people may find appealing in the morning, a "monopoly" in ready-to-eat cereals looks rather different. Even a single cereal seller (assuming no government privilege) could not price his product without taking into account what his rivals in other foods, and consumers, were doing. He could not even be sure who his rivals were until they arose in response to his consumer-alienating actions.

The conventional notion of monopoly has also been subjected to the reductio ad absurdum. In deciding who is a monopolist, where do we stop? Only one shop can occupy the northeast corner of Elm and Main in Anytown. A particular consumer could decide it's too costly in time or effort to cross the street and buy at the rival shop on the northwest corner. Does that make the first shop a monopoly?

I have exclusive domain over my own labor services and tools (laptop, etc.). The same is true for each reader. Does that make us all monopolists? If so, how useful is the concept? (Much of what I've learned over many years about monopoly and antitrust I learned from Dominick T. Armentano. See Antitrust and Monopoly: Anatomy of a Policy Failure.)

Ludwig von Mises, I should acknowledge, believed that in theory there could be "instances of monopoly prices [harmful to consumers] which would appear also on a market not hampered and sabotaged by the interference of the various national governments and by conspiracies between groups of governments." However, he added, these "are of minor importance. They concern some raw materials the deposits of which are few and geographically concentrated, and local limited-space monopolies."

In chapter 10 of Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard critiqued the concept monopoly price as useless in a free-market context because identifying it would require knowledge of a product'scompetitive price, which itself cannott be identified. All we can observe is the price that emerges from buying and selling on the market. Other Austrian economists, such as Israel Kirzner, think Mises was right.

Adam Smith's approach to monopoly makes more sense than the mainstream neoclassical view. To Smith, monopoly denoted a privilege, a legal barrier to competition, such as a license or a franchise — in other words, a grant from the state. Anyone who attempted to compete with the monopolist would run afoul of the law and be suppressed by force, because that's how the state assures its decrees are faithfully carried out. When someone whose actions are consonant with natural rights is suppressed by force, that is aggression.

Hence my claim that the concepts monopoly and aggression are intimately related. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Monopoly-building interventions take forms other than outright franchises and licenses. Tariffs and other restrictions on foreign-made consumer goods impose monopolistic, or at least oligopolistic, burdens on consumers by preventing or hampering competition from producers outside the country and thereby raising prices. If the restricted goods are producers' goods, they burden domestic manufacturers as well as consumers.

Intellectual-property laws — patents, copyrights, and the like — have a similar effect by hampering competition through prohibitions on the use of knowledge and forms that people possess mentally. The creation of an artificial property right through patents is practically indistinguishable from a franchise or license. Its harm to consumers is the same.

Frédéric Bastiat appears to have understood this, though he was not always clear. (Yes, this whole thing has been an excuse to write about one of my favorite thinkers.) In his unfinished magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, Bastiat said some interesting things that bear on this issue.

Bastiat praised the competitive market process — where the state abstains from plunder on behalf of any special interests — precisely because it transfers "real wealth constantly … from the domain of private property into the communal domain." (I detail his argument in "Bastiat on the Socialization of Wealth.") What he meant was that, when economizing, profit-seeking producers substitute the free services of nature (water, gravity, electricity, wind, etc.) for onerous human labor, competition drives down prices to reflect the lower production costs. When consumers obtain the same or greater utility at a lower price, they enjoy free of chargesome of the utility they previously had to pay for with their labor. Innovation-with-competition delivers the fruits of the services of nature gratis, and the whole community benefits.

This is why Bastiat said that the market transfers wealth from the realm of private property to the "communal realm." Producers who formerly reaped returns on human services that provided utility to consumers now instead employ nature's services from which they can reap no return at all. As a result, we all get increasing amounts of free stuff.

But free competition is crucial. Bastiat used the example of a producer, John, who invents a new process "whereby he can complete his task with half the labor it previously took, everything included, even the cost of making the implement used to harness the forces of Nature." In that case, Bastiat writes, "as long as he keeps his secret, there will be no change" in his product's price, that is, its exchange ratio with other goods.

(For Bastiat, prices are formed, not according to the amount of labor that goes into goods, but by the toil and trouble, subjectively conceived, that consumers are saved by engaging in exchanges of services rather than by producing goods for themselves. He calls the English economists' axiom Value comes from labor "treacherous.")

Why will there be no change in price, or what Bastiat calls "value"? "Because," he replies, "the service is the same. The person furnishing [the good] performs the same service before as after the invention." So long as John can keep his secret, other things equal, the terms of exchange will remain unchanged.

The important question is: how long can John keep his secret? Bastiat went on to say that the old price will fall "when Peter, [a consumer and producer of another good to be offered in exchange], can say to John: 'You ask me for two hours of my labor in exchange for one of yours; but I am familiar with your process, and if you place such a high price on your service, I shall do it for myself'" (emphasis added).

Bastiat is clearly happy about this. I interpret this to mean that he did not approve of patents, which would prevent Peter from exploiting his knowledge of John's invention in order to save himself (and other people) money.

In fact, Bastiat follows up that passage with this:

Now this day comes inevitably. When a new process is invented, it does not remain a secret for long. [Emphasis added.]

The resulting fall in price "represents value [not to be confused with utility] eliminated, relative wealth that has disappeared, private property made public [emphasis added], utility previously onerous, now gratuitous." (As my earlier article notes, Bastiat expected this kind of talk to get him accused of being a communist. Can you imagine?)

What I want to emphasize is this: in Economic Harmonies, which Bastiat wrote late in life and despite what he may have said elsewhere (and in distinguishing between patents and copyright, he was by no means unambiguous), he appeared not to regret that an inventor was unable reap returns by forcibly thwarting imitators. (In a letter, he wrote, "I must admit that I attach immense and extremely beneficial importance to imitation." Hat tip: David Hart of Liberty Fund.) He expressed no concern that imitation would discourage innovation.

So-called intellectual property is the dominant engine of monopoly in modern economies. Fortunately, cheap technology makes enforcement increasingly difficult, and we may look forward to the day when it disappears entirely. Which underscores my point: to rid society of monopoly we must rid society of aggression.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. Love how you set up a valid conception of what a coercive monopoly is, then sneak-in intellectual property as an alleged example of that. If you were trying to pull a fast one, you were too slow.

    To include IP as an example of coercive monopoly is to make all property rights a form of coercive monopoly, which is to cede your argument to the left. You guys really, really want IP to be bad and evil and arbitrary, but in reality it isn’t so; in reality, production requires a tremendous mental and physical effort, and those who create intellectually are just as entitled to their property as anyone else.

    Your rabid antagonism to IP derives from your error of holding the mind-body dichotomy; being rationalists, you see ideas as some kind of floating, ephemeral, causeless and unreal world that no one could possibly hope to own (or create) like we do with material goods.

    1. Yeah, he left off the other piece of nuance that most people ignore about monopolies, namely, that under a narrow enough definition, everything is a monopoly. If I own a gas station on one side of a street, then I have a monopoly on gas on that side of the street, even though there may be another gas station on the other side.

      What makes a market competitive is how close the substitutes are. A gas station across the street is a close substitute, but if there weren’t another for 100 miles, you’d clearly have monopoly pricing going on.

      IP should be examined under the same lens. It’s fine, for example, for Apple to have a ‘monopoly’ on the design of an iPhone so long as the definition of ‘design’ isn’t so broad as to include all ‘smartphones’.

      1. Did you RTFA? He mentions that.

        The conventional notion of monopoly has also been subjected to the reductio ad absurdum. In deciding who is a monopolist, where do we stop? Only one shop can occupy the northeast corner of Elm and Main in Anytown. A particular consumer could decide it’s too costly in time or effort to cross the street and buy at the rival shop on the northwest corner. Does that make the first shop a monopoly?

        1. Of course not, I stopped halfway through like always 🙂

    2. You are wrong, for the exact reason you state. Because I value creations of the mind so strongly, I recognize that any thought belongs to the person who thought it, even if someone else thought it first.

      To claim that my thoughts are not my own, or that the creations of my labor are not mine, is slavery.

      1. The point of IP is not to prevent you from thinking freely, but to prevent you from using the product of someone else’s intellectual property without compensating them.

        1. It’s like claiming that it’s OK to steal a car because the thief put labor into breaking the lock and hotwiring it.

        2. IP is government mandated monopoly. If you can’t even admit that, you are hopelessly blind.

          Everything subject to copyright was being created long before copyright existed; it will continue to be created without copyright. I double dog dare you to point out any copyright holder who has said they would not have created their works without copyright. In the meantime, examples abound of material that was not created entirely due to fear of copyright violation, for the most obtuse reasons.

          All art is derivative. All invention is derivative. Examples also abound of patents blocking progress (Watt, the Wright brothers) for no benefit to anybody except the monopoly IP holder, especially to the detriment of society from having progress stalled.

          And you still can’t get around IP only existing as an artificial government monopoly, in fact the only real monopoly. Nothing created by government coercion has any positive value for society.

          1. Sure, by your definition all property rights are monopolies, and when backed by law, government protected. I have a monopoly over the use of my land, car, kitchen table…

            And this

            Examples also abound of patents blocking progress (Watt, the Wright brothers) for no benefit to anybody except the monopoly IP holder, especially to the detriment of society from having progress stalled.

            sounds an awful lot like a justification for eminent domain to me. Consider the case of the obstinate land owner whose property sits in the path of a pipeline.

            1. If you can’t tell the difference between natural property rights and government-created property rights, you are willfully ignorant or willfully deceptive.

              Fuck off, slaver.

              1. If you can’t tell the difference between stealing the labor of others just because it’s convenient and theft, then you are either willfully ignorant or willfully deceptive.

                Fuck off, thief.

          2. IP was specifically put in the constitution as an exception to natural law because they knew it wasn’t there by default. Note that they didn’t do the same with real property.*

            Its proof of your point.

            *although I’m unconvinced by any natural law arguments about real property too.

            1. IP was specifically put in the constitution as an exception to natural law because they knew it wasn’t there by default.

              Assuming this is true for the sake of argument, the Constitution is not the final arbiter of what is and isn’t just and/or natural law.

              Its proof of your point.

              How?

              1. While they could be wrong, it shows that IP is government coersion. They didn’t put in the same clause for things they thought were covered by natural law.

            2. The Constitution is a half measure at best that compromises ethics left and right. The takings clause (where Jefferson rolled over for Hamilton and co.) is a travesty to property rights; it’s hard to see why we should take one particular document of compromised semi-classical liberalism as the end-all, be-all of modern libertarian values, which have generally outgrown our classical liberal roots by a good bit. The framers would’ve found what we call IP important for pragmatic reasons, which are worth debating.

              Re: natural law, we don’t have to call it that to get the point across: there is an insufficient amount of stuff to meet everyone’s desires, the root of human conflict is conflict over scarce stuff, and thus we must use a system of conflict resolution to resolve disputes. The two methods of conflict resolution are by authoritarian fiat (democratic, totalitarian, whatever) or by emergent law, whether that’s the good old law formerly enforced by kings and aristocrats, natural law given by God, or what we’ve come to call common law.

              The more that I consider the problems that we face as libertarians/propertarians, the more convinced I am that we need to stop getting hung up on talk of natural rights and the constant digressions that invoking them leads to. Most people have a strong intuitive grasp of law as an emergent phenomenon of social creatures–in every case I can think of, that’s more than sufficient to establish our moral arguments.

            3. Actually it wasn’t. IP law is really just another form of (preemptive) eminent domain. It’s no different than the amusing argument that IP is impractical because there would be so much future conflict and future owners that no one could do anything. Curiously–actually conveniently–opponents to IP rights don’t see that “natural” property rights lead to the exact same problem with respect to roads and physical access.

        3. If I make a widget, it is mine. If it is mine, I can sell it.

          If you have a patent you claim ownership of something I made.

          Fuck off, slaver.

          1. You are free to make a widget and sell it. You can even copy my design. If you copy my design and sell it without compensating me, however, you are claiming ownership of my design, the product of my intellectual labor. Sure you want to toss around the slaver label?

            1. Its the product of my intellectual labor. You doing it first doesn’t change that.

              There is no natural law IP.

              1. You doing it first doesn’t change that.

                If you do it independently, I’m inclined to agree. But if you copy my design, you are wrong.

                1. Are you saying the act of copying isn’t intellectual thought? Because you are the one who is wrong.

                  My brain/hands still created the widget, even if I’m looking at your blueprint while doing it. It is therefore mine.

                2. You are confusing observation for origination. Either that or you’re engaging in solipsism.

      2. Thinking a thought isn’t the same as creating a thought. If I read a book, I’m ‘thinking’ the thoughts the author has written as I read along. But I didn’t create the thoughts, the author did.

        1. No, I create them in my brain. The author provides some assistance, which is nice of him.

          1. The author provides some assistance

            Whoa! Robc comes out of nowhere with a late but strong entry for “Understatement of the Year”!

            1. The people who taught me to read provided way more assistance than the author, do they get royalties too?

              1. Presumably, they taught you to read freely or were already compensated.

                You either miss the point or ignore it. You cannot reasonably claim that you would have created the thoughts that came to you while you read Harry Potter unless the author had done so first and published them for you to read. That you would claim otherwise is laughable.

                1. Presumably, the author did so freely or was already compensated.

                  1. We don’t need to presume in this case. The copyright tells us the author is NOT doing so freely.

          2. What if the author says ‘I agree to assist you in these thoughts so long as you don’t likewise assist others, and by buying the book you agree to these terms’. At that point, you’ve entered into a contract with the author. Is it wrong for the government to enforce that contract?

            1. If I sign that contact, I’m fine with the government enforcing it.

              1. But ‘copyright 2010’ is just a shorthand way of writing all that. (I realize this line of argument only applies to copyrights, and not to patents).

                1. Shorthand ain’t a fucking contract.

                2. Relevant:

                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aueccyYY0Ls

                  Rothbard views copyright as fundamentally a common-law contract between seller and buyer (presumably/obviously one that can’t be enforced on people who would receive the republished document if it were reproduced in violation of the original contract). On the other hand, patent is pure monopoly and government manipulation.

                  That seems a pretty obvious libertarian understanding given the importance we place on contract.

                  1. “”presumably/obviously one that can’t be enforced on people who would receive the republished document if it were reproduced in violation of the original contract””

                    Why is that obvious? If I buy a stolen car, I don’t get to keep it once the police discover it’s stolen.

                    1. ?

                      If someone made a replica of your car, they didn’t steal your car. You still have your car.

                    2. Then presumably you’re OK with someone using your name. Identity is really nothing more than IP. I’m not denying you the use of your identity even if I decide to use it as well. We certainly can’t call it fraud by that definition.

                    3. One, it’s irrelevant to the discussion of material (that’s to say, actual) property, and two, it’s by definition fraudulent to misrepresent your identity contractually. Never fails that IP discussions devolve into triviality and silliness.

                      You’re at least right that people don’t own their own reputations. That’s why it’s best to deal with slander and libel socially without getting courts involved.

                    4. Then presumably you’re OK with someone using your name.

                      I’m fine with people deciding to change their name to match mine. There’s already several million people with my first name.

                      Now, if they try to do that so they can clean out my bank accounts, then I’d have an issue with their use of my name.

                      If someone here decides to call themselves prolefeed1 (so people can tell whether it was me or them posting that thought), have at it.

                    5. And if someone wants to copy my thoughts and call taxation theft and government a criminal gang and police officers enforcers for a criminal gang, welcome to the club!

                    6. That isn’t the point. This is about the extent of the obligation to 3rd parties. In the example of the stolen car, the 3rd party who bought it is still obliged to return it even though they didn’t steal it. It’s not obvious, then, that 3rd parties who reproduce copyrighted material can’t held to the terms of the contract.

        2. I say this as an author: I do not own the words on the page, nor do I own the particular arrangement of them. If someone else wants to copy my words, they are both welcome and morally permitted to do so regardless of what some august body of authorities or publisher says. I don’t own your printing press, your notebook, your ink, or your computer.

          If that blows up the modern publishing racket (which is what the internet is doing, and swiftly), all the better for the world. I’ve always felt that art is better under a patron system, and the sooner the old publishing system dies, the better.

    3. Entirely wrong and par for the course with our resident Randy blowhard.

      Ideas can be infinitely replicated and thus are neither scarce nor ownable any more than a particular arrangement of electrons (not the electrons themselves) can be ownable. To say otherwise is to claim a property right over someone else’s mind, body, and labor, and thus a minor form of slavery.

      It takes literally 30 seconds to blow up the ethical foundation of IP. The digression into debate mind-body dichotomy is, like so much else in the world of Rand, hand-waving into a wall of words in the face of an obvious truth that might strike Rand and her droning acolytes as distasteful.

      Intellectual property is itself an anti-concept.

      1. You are angry and frustrated, but that doesn’t make me wrong.

        Your “thirty second argument” is a simple little deduction that, like everything else in the rationalist universe, is neat and tidy and QED without any valid reference to facts or consideration of reality. You presume a very common error in economic thought, the widespread primacy granted to the concept of scarcity; scarcity is non-essential. The fact that you could independently conceive of a product after someone else did, would not change the fact that someone else had done it first, and had sought to protect their concept via patent.

        It *is* a mind-body issue, and it illustrates your view of concepts and ideas, which you regard as unreal and illusory. Material objects are real; ideas are causeless ghosts floating in the ether, and no one could claim to have conceived of them; that is where you are coming from, fundamentally.

      2. Same nonsense, different day. If ideas aren’t scarce, then why does it take significant resource to invent them? Why does R&D cost anything at all?

        To replicate an idea is indeed to claim ownership over someone’s mind, body, and labor: the inventor’s. The only arguments that blow up IP are circular in nature.

        Yes, it can be abused and taken too far, but if you want to go down that road, then I’m sure you’re ready to ban all guns. By denying me the right to cross your property you are denying me the right to use my mind, body, and labor. A difference without a distinction.

        1. Same nonsense, different day. If ideas aren’t scarce, then why does it take significant resource to invent them? Why does R&D cost anything at all?

          You’re confused about the nature of scarcity. Knowledge may be hard to come by, but it’s not scarce in any formal sense. Even the effort needed to learn it, print it, teach it, etc. has nothing to do with the scarcity of ideas as such. The R&D confusion is just a demonstration that you don’t understand scarcity.

          Yes, it can be abused and taken too far, but if you want to go down that road, then I’m sure you’re ready to ban all guns. By denying me the right to cross your property you are denying me the right to use my mind, body, and labor. A difference without a distinction.

          Gibberish. Property is scarce. Guns are scarce. Scarce physical goods (which is redundant, but apparently I need to be redundant here) is what property is, by definition. Ideas, which are not electrons nor physical property (again, redundant) of any sort, but rather patterns or arrangements of material, are by definition not things nor property in themselves.

        2. As an aside, it’s interesting that you use the word “invent” with respect to ideas, as it highlights the pernicious role of language in confusing the discussion.

          Advocates of property rights shouldn’t even use the term “intellectual property”; it cedes too much ground to the enemies of actual property rights not to object to it. Let’s call “IP” what it is: aggression against private property.

    4. Whatever we take to be their foundation, property rights are conventions that solve the problem of how to allocate scarce resources. If both you and I lay claim to the same piece of land, how do we adjudicate between our claims? Property conventions. Like I said, we could use any justifying principle we like – fee simple, usufructuary, etc. If we didn’t have scarcity, there’d be no need for property.

      Information, however, is inherently non-scarce. It can be transferred to any number of people, and transference in no way diminishes the original holder’s possession. To apply property to information is to undermine the whole purpose of property rights and to create scarcity where there is none.

    5. Article 1 section 8 of the US constitution says:
      “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;” etc.

      Seems to support Libertarius wrt law.

    6. IP (and for that matter land patents too) is not ‘aggression’ but it is ‘theft’. In this country, every person has a right – from birth – to have THEIR government represent them. The second that is taken away and government instead defends the monopoly that it has granted to some and not others, then it is playing a utilitarian game of winners and losers – and siding with the winners and against the losers.

      I don’t oppose IP. I think it is a necessity for precisely the reason it is specifically enumerated in the Constitution. But the cost (societal – not just transactional/bureaucratic) of those patent grants/defenses/etc should be borne directly and fully by the beneficiaries of those patents.

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  4. Intellectual-property laws ? patents, copyrights, and the like ? have a similar effect by hampering competition through prohibitions on the use of knowledge and forms that people possess mentally. The creation of an artificial property right through patents is practically indistinguishable from a franchise or license. Its harm to consumers is the same.

    Yep.

    The creation of the term intellectual property is one of the greatest cons of the 20th century. The proper term is limited monopoly and the rationale for it is laid out vary well in the US Constitution :

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

    The intent is to expand information in the public domain, the limited monopolies of copyright and patents exist to incentivize the creation of new information.

  5. Streets, highways and bridges are monopolistic and so are power lines and gas mains. The commodities they move should not be. They are in some states and not in others.

  6. Strong Sunday article even by Richman standards.

    For Bastiat, prices are formed, not according to the amount of labor that goes into goods, but by the toil and trouble, subjectively conceived, that consumers are saved by engaging in exchanges of services rather than by producing goods for themselves. He calls the English economists’ axiom Value comes from labor “treacherous.”

    This is why it’s a travesty that students read Marx, but usually graduate without ever hearing the name Bastiat. FB died in 1850, more than a generation before the marginal revolution and in a period when everyone of note–from the American anarchists who presaged the libertarian movement to the scions of the Scottish classical economists–conceived of value as an objective substance within goods that were to be traded.

    The man was a genius, and if he and other French economists in the Catholic tradition had received the attention they deserved, we might have staved off much of the suffering the labor theory led to in the 20th century under people who took Marx seriously.

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  10. A monopoly could theoretically exist because people are satisfied with one service provider, or people do not care to compete with that provider because they would rather do other things, or the provider has voluntarily gained ownership of all of the land where a scarce resource is located.

  11. IP law is nothing more than protectionism enforced by violent government. It retards technology and forcibly restricts individuals from improving on a product. It’s preety much a special privlege granted to those who have 10’s of thousands of not more to spend on paperwork and lawyers. It is different than a contract between individuals where they would colaborate to make a product. This of course would be free from coercion and is voluntary. What are you going to do, send a government agent to a restaurant and have them tell the owner they are not making the meatballs to the original design specification, and didn’t give the surviving relatives royalties?

    Suppose someone made a direct copy of windows 7. The called it Windows 7 super.

    There are more important things than just a name. Reputation, customer service, and support also play a major role in making a purchase. Sure, windows 7 super may be cheaper, but it doesn’t have continuous update and patch support, and there are only 15 folks taking calls for tech support.

    Even if windows 7 super evolved to where it outperformed windows 7, than Microsoft would have to innovate, or loose business for their failure to compete. To have a government agent come in and even prevent the win 7 super developer from even trying is slavery.

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