The reason American governance is dysfunctional is simple: We have turned much of our sovereignty over to private interests in the form of monopolies. So while our politicians can discuss important social questions, the structure of our political economy lies outside the realm of our democratic debate.
This became obvious yet again today when the New York Times revealed that a team of anti-monopoly researchers had been fired from the New America Foundation, an influential Google-funded think tank in Washington, after the researchers pointed out that Google misused its power.
Monopoly, it turns out, is the power of which we dare not speak.
I am a member of the team that was let go, the Open Markets program. We research monopoly power not because business is bad, but because democracy is good. We try to understand our corporate and banking institutions not because we oppose commerce, but because we support commerce in open markets. Business is good, commerce is good, freedom, democracy is good. And monopolies are an enemy to all of these things.
Much political deliberation these days goes into questions of inequality. Corruption is political inequality, and extremes of wealth are economic inequality. The institutional vehicle for both of these is monopoly power. Just look at the Bloomberg list of billionaires: The people on it tend to be rich white men who organize monopoly power and wield political influence.
At Open Markets, we started with the same questions that most Americans have. What went wrong? Why did we allow a concentrated system of Too Big to Fail banks to crash our economy? Why can’t our industrial system reduce carbon emissions and help limit the impact of climate change?
These kinds of questions about the power of finance and industry have been debated in America for decades, and bankers and industrialists have dedicated vast amounts of their money to influencing that debate. But in recent years, a new class of corporate power has begun to shape our world, prompting a new set of questions: Why have we allowed the internet's information monopolists to seize so much control of our digital lives? And why have they financially strangled our free press, and allowed propaganda and fake news to crawl out of the slime and influence elections?
The answer is monopoly power. The companies that hold that power, led by Google, have become massively influential in Washington — hence the fact that we’ve been thrown out of our think tank and must now set up an independent shop (CitizensAgainstMonopoly.org is our temporary website). They’re also wielding their power over the rest of corporate America — terrifying everyone from grocery store owners to carmakers and book publishers, and even the very Silicon Valley startup scene they were once a part of.
For hundreds of years, Americans realized that this kind of misuse of property in the form of monopoly power was a threat to their political liberties. We saw it for what it was: autocratic.
This was a widely held belief, on the left and on the right. Friedrich Hayek had an entire chapter on the danger of monopolies in his classic political tome The Road to Serfdom. Labor scholars warned that monopolies represented the “dictatorial and fascist trends within our own country.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech to Congress making this same point, and it was a speech that Hayek quoted in his book.
Fundamentally, monopoly power is political power. It lets a small group of people exercise control over a much larger group, which results in both extremes of wealth inequality and extremes of political corruption. It is why anger is bubbling up in most Western democracies, regardless of the voting system or safety net — we are all dealing with the same monopoly institutions.
What Google did, in attempting to silence my colleagues, was in fact a call to action. It is a call to action for all of us, as citizens, to take back our democracy. We must begin a new era of trust-busting, of public utility regulation, of free and open commerce, and of citizen engagement in our political and commercial spheres.
Our team was attacked by Google, but we will not be silenced. We will continue our research, advocacy, and speaking, because we know that it is working. This is a battle for America, and for free people everywhere. We must win it. We are winning it. Our freedom, and our children’s freedom, depends on it.
Matt Stoller is a fellow on the Open Markets team. His work focuses on industrial organization, monopoly power, and market structure.
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