Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sat, 8 May 2021, 1:46 PM


Capitalists against competition

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Capitalists hate competition. That's the message of plans by several big clubs - as well as Sp*rs - to form a "super" league in which they'll be protected from the danger of relegation or from competition from emerging teams.

The smarter capitalists have of course long known that profits come from avoiding competition. Warren Buffett advises shareholders to look for companies with "economic moats" - things that protect them from competition. And Peter Thiel says start-ups
should aim to become monopolies. "Competition is for losers" he says.

But here's the thing. Striving for monopoly is by no means always a bad thing. The pursuit of brand power - one of Buffett's moats - causes firms to try to make high-quality products consumers can trust. The urge for more market share causes them to undercut rivals and so keep prices low. Or the desire to win the natural monopoly that comes from having a dominant platform business leads firms such as Facebook or Twitter to give away services.

In ways such as these, capitalists' attempts to overcome competition can work for everyone's benefit.

But, but, but. This is only part of the story. Proposals for a breakaway league remind us that there are more malevolent ways of seeking to over-ride competition. Adam Smith famously saw one of these:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

We can add to this the pursuit of restrictive patents and copyrights; driving down of wages and working conditions; or lobbying governments for special favours.

Which poses the question: what can be done to ensure that capitalists strive for monopoly in benign rather than malign ways.

Changing ownership is not always the answer. Yes, there's a case (pdf) for football clubs to be run by fans. But accountancy firms have long been worker-owned, and few people pretend that business is a model of a well-functioning market. This isn't to say there's no case for worker ownership - there definitely is. It's just that coops' many merits do not include being a magic bullet for producing the right kind of competition.

Nor, I suspect, are laws and regulations. Technocrats often forget that the law is endogenous. It is not imposed from outside by benign philosopher-kings, but is instead prone to being captured by capitalists. As Pablo Torija Jimenez has shown, the state serves the interests of the rich. Klopp

A third possibility - proposed for example by Jesse Norman in his book, Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why it Matters - is for capitalists to have the right kind of social norms, a sense of fair play. But of course, if they ever had such norms, they no longer do so.

Which leaves one other option - countervailing power. Strong trades unions in the post-war period, for example, not only prevented wages (of white men at least) being egregiously cut but also limited bosses' rent-seeking.

If we are lucky, such countervailing power will kill the European super league. If enough players and managers resist it, along with fans, then club owners might cave in.

I'm reminded here of something Luigi Zingales has said. He points to what happened in 1994 when shareholders tried to stop Maurice Saatchi giving himself a lot of share options. He flounced off, taking with him clients and colleagues. The lesson of this, said Zingales, is that formal ownership is not the same as control. In the same way, Fenway Sports Group might formally own Liverpool FC but if Jurgen Klopp and some players were to oppose a super league, could they really force the club into it?

There's no point making a firm prediction here: we'll find out soon enough.

Instead, the point is that capitalists' hatred of competition sometimes works for the public good and sometimes not. Which it is - and whether non-capitalistic forms of ownership can do better - depends upon context and environment which differ from industry to industry, place to place and time to time. It does seem, though, that recent years have seen these contexts change for the worst.

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