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Warren’s Populist Puritanism – Andy Kessler – WSJ

 |  March 17, 2019

By Andy Kessler

H.L. Mencken defined puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. Remember that amid the deluge of demands to break up Facebook , Google, Amazon and Apple .

Columbia law professor Tim Wu insists that bigness is bad. “We’ve let Facebook have their ride, they’ve made their money and they’ve been very successful,” he told the American Enterprise Institute last month. “I just think there’s a very good track record in tech of trying to put pressure on the monopolist and break things up a little bit.” Basically, Facebook got big and now it’s someone else’s turn.

Wannabe president Elizabeth Warren wants to “break up Big Tech” and split the companies into heavily regulated “platform utilities.” She told crowds at South by Southwest: “The monopolist will make fewer monopoly profits. Boohoo.” The politics of envy is the populist playbook.

Yet the Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits two specific types of business practices: anticompetitive agreements, or collusion, and conduct to limit competition. Judges define these violations by a consumer-welfare standard, assessing whether consumers are harmed by a lack of competition. “Innocent monopolies” earned by merit are not illegal. Antitrust says nothing about bigness.

No matter. The calls are getting louder for Facebook to split off Instagram and WhatsApp. Same for Amazon carving out Whole Foods. Or Google divesting its 2007 acquisition DoubleClick. Or spinning out the App Store from Apple, as Spotify is seeking in the European Union. There’s little sign of consumer harm in any of these cases.

Sure, the tech titans have some issues. Google’s searches favored its own sites over others. Facebook sold private information after agreeing not to, and the Federal Trade Commission is set to collect a huge fine. So keep up the pressure. Firms clearly ought to respect property rights better, and pay for news content and user data. But demanding divestitures and regulation is an old trick competitors use to get government to do their bidding. In reality, the moves would freeze innovation without enhancing competition.

I lived through the 1982 breakup of the Bell System. Now that was a harmful monopoly, and a government-mandated one. But the market would have done it eventually. Even still, the telecom Humpty Dumpty was put together again as AT&T and Verizon, companies desperately in search of growth business models.

On the other hand, IBM didn’t get broken up. It was the ultimate platform in the ’80s: IBM made chips, boards and disk drives, put them in a box with software, and had half of industry sales and 90% of profits. But antitrust wasn’t necessary: Management figured out all by itself how to become irrelevant.

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