[Continued from Part II which was published here on Saturday, also containing the link to Part I.]
How effective is anti-monopoly legislation?
Anti-monopoly laws operate within the constraints of the type of social and economic circumstances described above. That alone means they are severely limited in what they can do. They must, for example, tolerate state granted monopolies in the form of patents and copyright.
Anti-monopoly legislation generally only effectively attacks the problem from one end. A company can be prevented from growing its market share by taking over other companies but there is normally no meaningful restriction on a company growing its market share simply by expanding the existing company. Microsoft and the domination of Windows is a classic example.
Where companies try to expand by takeover, experience shows that those charged with applying the legislation allow very large parts of a market – 25% or more – to be held by a single company. The consequence is that a market which would seem to be an obvious candidate for competition, for example, food and domestic supplies retailing, can easily come to be dominated by three or four major players (as is the case in Britain).
There are also those products which are either natural monopolies because of the physical location of their infrastructure – railways, roads, the utilities such as gas – or which are inevitably going to have few entrants in the field because of reasons of cost, for example, aerospace, motor cars, ship building.
Finally, there are those rare markets which are dominated by one company simply because of the nature of their business. The classic example of this is Microsoft and their Windows operating system.
Microsoft and Windows – a natural monopoly
In South Park: The Movie, there is a glorious scene where, under martial law, Bill Gates is executed for falsely promising that Windows 98 would be “faster, easier to use and more reliable”. Many long-suffering Windows users doubtless wish that life had imitated art in that instance. Yet despite widespread dissatisfaction Windows remains the overwhelming dominant operating system.
At first glance it might seem that operating systems should be just the type of product which is open to fierce competition because software is a market which potentially has low entry costs. It is true that most areas of programming are competitive – within the constraint of the dominant operating system (OS) – but operating systems are the odd man out. The reason is simple. Once a single OS gained dominance, the chances of any other system effectively competing were very small. This is because the weight of programs available to run under the dominant OS soon became much greater than those which could be run under any other OS. Thus, it becomes inefficient to choose any other OS. That in turn means most of the software is written in a way to make in “friendly” to the dominant OS systems’ users. This further excludes OS competitors and the software to run under them because users, especially employers, do not want to spend the time training their employees on completely new systems, converting data and so on.
The consequence is that Microsoft still has a stranglehold on the pc market. Moreover, if anyone wants to write any other software, they are constrained by the practical need for it to run under the Microsoft OS if they wish to reach the mass computer user market.
The near monopoly has lasted a long time. It has done this despite considerable attempts by both rivals and the US government to diminish their market position. Windows’ dominance looks secure for the foreseeable future.
The historical trend towards contraction of competition
As remarked previously, the logical end of a free market is monopoly. The reason is obvious: competition tends to reduce the number of competitors through the natural process of success and failure and the takeover of one firm by another. In some trades this does not create an obvious serious anti-competitive difficulty because the initial capital investment is small and entry to the trade within the reach of many. But entry to a considerable and growing number of areas of manufacturing and service provision is too expensive for all but a few.
In a significant minority of trades starting a business from scratch is practically impossible for any one individual or even a group of private investors. The car industry is a first rate example, the number of companies now being small (and becoming smaller) compared with the number of even 40 years ago. Moreover, many of the car companies which do still exist do so only because of state subsidy and protection.
“Free trade” is frequently treated as synonymous with international trade. In principle it does not have to be restricted to international dealings because the concept may be applied to any market, whether that be within a global, regional, national or even a local context.
The United States for example displays considerable differences in local tax rates between not only states but within localities within a state, and, indeed, the ultimate aim of the “free trader” is to create a single world market. However, there are considerable differences in practice between domestic markets and international markets, not least because the criteria which are deemed to fall within the concept of “free trade” are not identical with those which are said to be a necessary part of the concept of a “free market”. For example, laws to prevent monopoly are redundant when it comes to international trade because one country will either supply or not supply goods and services to other countries and a country with a monopoly of an important good or service can as a matter of fact only be persuaded to supply the good or service against its will by extra-legal action, ultimately force or the threat of force.
Consequently, it is convenient to treat “free trade” as being economic intercourse between nation states and that is what I shall do.
[To be continued tomorrow in Part IV]