In the 20th century, both Democrats and Republicans routinely used antitrust law to drive competition in some of our most important technological realms—including electronics and communications. The result was a series of fantastic technological advances. Yet the trustbusters did not always succeed. In 1911 they lost a case against U.S. Steel. Seventy-five years later, that company still relied on the same old furnaces even as foreign companies in more competitive markets developed vastly superior technologies. In 1926 the trustbusters failed to force GE to open up the light bulb market. As a result, we continued to use notoriously wasteful 19th-century tungsten filament technology well into the 21st century.
Before we can ever effectively address concentration and its effects on technological advance—and the chance to create a better, perhaps sustainable world—we must first overcome the widespread misapprehension that competition is wasteful, hence that in regulating our political economy we must aim foremost at efficiency.
The idea is not a new. In America we can trace the idea to men like John. D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, who justified their predations in large part by claiming they were making business more “efficient.” Such thinking was soon adopted—and formalized—by many economists and other “experts.” A century ago in America, many promoters of “scientific management” of production truly believed there was a “one best way” to accomplish every task.
But the idea did not win wide acceptance. Classic liberals like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower believed strongly in the need to promote competition through the distribution of power—for both political and economic reasons. One practical result was very rapid technological advance in those sectors where antitrust was enforced. For instance, the great industrial historian Alfred Chandler concluded that it was the trustbusters who “set the stage” for the Silicon Valley scientists who invented the “electronic century.”
In the 1960s, however, the idea of efficiency surged back into fashion on both wings of the political spectrum, especially among followers of leftist economist John Kenneth Galbraith and the right-wing “Chicago school” of economics. The argument was essentially the same one put forward by Rockefeller a century earlier: The bigger a firm, the greater its ability to drive down prices and serve the “consumer.” But this time, with the backing of the “consumer movement” forged in the 1960s, the advocates of efficiency at last achieved the revolutionary change they sought. The key to their political victories? The argument that enforcement of antitrust law should be oriented around a new concept—that of “consumer welfare.”
In the three decades since the “consumer welfare” test was built into our anti-monopoly laws, Americans have witnessed perhaps the greatest roll-up of power ever, one that has remade almost every sector of the U.S. economy. And the basic thinking remains largely unchanged, even after the Wall Street crash of 2008 revealed some of the structural dangers posed by concentration and even after the Tea Party and Occupy movements proved that Americans still very much fear monopoly. The idea that government should help private actors to impose “efficiency” in business and banking—supposedly to help the “consumer”—still shapes decision-making by the Obama administration, Congress, and the Federal Reserve.
Strangely, one of the strongest bastions of support for this “consumer welfare” argument is the environmental movement. Here the origins of the idea that competition is “wasteful” trace largely to Theodore Roosevelt-era thinking on “conservation.” But the practical result is the same, as we can see when groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council embrace Wal-Mart and other goliaths precisely because they believe they can “create environmental progress by leveraging corporate purchasing power.”
In 1798 the British economist Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” His argument was simple. The limited amount of land in the world meant a limited amount of food, hence a limit to the total number of people. If the population grew beyond this limit, starvation would soon bring the numbers back into balance. For decades, right through human catastrophes like the Irish Potato Famine, the rulers of Europe used Malthus’ zero-sum argument as an excuse to do nothing.
Yet across the Atlantic, the American people were already proving Malthus wrong. Having broken the power of the lords and clerics who for so long ruled over our land and industry and minds, Americans now took advantage of our new freedom to think up better ways to reap and sow and improve our seeds. And so, long before gasoline-powered tractors, petroleum-based fertilizers, and genetic manipulation of plant matter, American farmers adapted plants like wheat and corn to entirely new ranges and greatly increased per-acre yields.
We stand today, as a society, armed with innumerable better ideas. They include, as Michael Pollan told Slate recently, farming techniques that empower us simultaneously to address “climate change and soil quality and food security.” This includes, as Frederick Kaufman wrote, “open source” approaches to improving foods that empower many scientists to participate in projects where one or a few corporate teams now rule. It is impossible, today, to know which ideas will best enable us to adapt our food system to a world of rapid, even chaotic environmental change. What we do know is the best way to sort through these ideas is within transparent and competitive marketplaces.
The American food movement has achieved much success in developing new models of farming, and in creating markets and regional networks that connect growers to eaters. But the movement can never win the big fight—to apply these principles to the systems that feed all the people of the world—until it stands up squarely to the command-and-control corporate systems that increasingly dominate our political economy, and to the arguments used to justify that power.
If we find ourselves living in a new era of food shortages, it will not be due only to our failure to control carbon. It will be due even more to our failure to protect the open-market systems that empower us not merely to exchange, but to think and adapt.
Also in Future Tense's July series on agriculture and climate change: Mark Hertsgaard investigates the potential of biochar to turn back climate change, Michael Pollan explains the difference between "sun food" and "oil food," David Biello examines why so many farmers don't believe in climate change, and Frederick Kaufman explores the potential of open-source GMOs.