Munich Personal RePEc Archive

British economists on competition policy (1890-1920)

Giocoli, Nicola (2012): British economists on competition policy (1890-1920).

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Abstract

Most late 19th-century US economists gave a rather cool welcome to the Sherman Act (1890) and, though less harshly, to the Clayton and FTC Acts (1914). A large literature has identified several explanations for this surprising attitude, calling into play the relation between big business and competition, a non-neoclassical notion of competition and a weak understanding of anti-competitive practices. Much less investigated is the reaction of British economists to the passing of antitrust statutes in the U.S. What we know is simply that none of them (including the top dog, Alfred Marshall) championed the adoption of a law-based competition policy during the three decades (1890-1920) of most intense antitrust debates in the U.S. The position of three prominent British economists will be examined in this paper: H.S. Foxwell, D.H. MacGregor, and, of course, Alfred Marshall – the latter in two moments at the extremes of our period, 1890 and 1919. It will turn out that they all shared with their American colleagues a theoretical and operational skepticism about the government and judiciary interference with the free working of markets. They also believed that British industrial structure and business habits were so different from those in the U.S. that the urge of interfering with markets in order to preserve competition was much weaker. Among the paper's insights is that Marshall’s key concept of “defending a competitor’s right to compete” foreran the modern characterization of the goal of competition policy as "the protection of the competitive process". Yet Marshall developed his concept without making recourse to the post-1930s neoclassical notion of competition as a static market structure which lies at the foundation of most contemporary antitrust policy: a useful lesson from the history of economic thought for those IO economists who still claim that the classical dynamic view of competition is unsuited as a foundation for an effective competition policy.

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