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Antitrust: A Political Weapon

Some old-time conservatives had a soft spot for antitrust laws.
Russell Kirk, for example, generally believed in free markets, but he
made an exception for interventions that curb the activities of
corporations. In this, he is joined today by free-market economists of
the Chicago School. They are critical of the way antitrust laws have
been applied, but stop short of favoring their repeal.

Yet it has never been clearer that antitrust is exactly what the
libertarians and Austrian School economists have always claimed: a
political weapon that accomplishes no social good and imposes much
social harm. Exhibit A is, of course, the absurd Microsoft case, in
which the government is attacking a wonderful company on technical
issues now two years out of

Strip away the jargon, and it becomes clear that the government wants
to nationalize Windows, the operating system that has brought the
miracles of online commerce, research, and entertainment to the world.
When the government ran the Internet, it was a dead system of transfer
messages between government offices. Microsoft has shown what private
enterprise can do: change the world for the better.

It was a revolting display to see the bureaucrats at the Justice
Department cheer Judge Jackson’s decision. Many of these people didn’t
even know how to navigate the Web 12 months ago, and now they are making
decisions for millions of consumers and threatening to smash the company
that democratized information. The government, driven by power-lust and
fueled by the envy of Microsoft’s competitors, is happy to jam a crowbar
into the wheel of commerce.

Just as revealing, however, is another antitrust case that has been
ignored. The same state officials who have caused so many headaches for
the tobacco industry and the software industry are considering a frontal
assault on the gun industry. The twist is that the newest issue isn’t
liability for violence inflicted (but not prevented) by guns. States are
now seeking to prove that the gun industry itself is a cartel that needs
to be broken up.

Now, a cartel is supposed to be a group of manufacturers who work in
concert to dictate prices. No such thing can exist on a free market,
since there are no state-created barriers to entry, the temptation to
compete by cutting prices is so strong, the available options are so
plentiful, and the market is so internationalized as to make any claims
of market power spurious on their face. Even OPEC would not have its
current level of influence if taxes and production and distribution
regulations were repealed, land use not restricted, and free trade

There is no such thing as an effective, dangerous cartel on the free
market. And there is no such thing as a gun cartel now. A free market in
firearms prevails in all aspects of the industry where government
doesn’t outlaw it. Visit a gun store or a Wal-Mart and you find an
amazing array of styles, prices, and manufacturers — and they are all
competing with each other. Consumers are in the driver’s seat as they
weigh all the factors that go into a firearm purchase.

How can gun manufacturers be accused of violating antitrust rules?
Liberal political elites have noticed that they are all united in
opposition to increased government regulation of their industry, exactly
as they should be. Recently this took the form of an awe-inspiring
boycott of Smith & Wesson for having struck a deal with the government
over issues of trigger locks, unapproved retail outlets, and sales of
firearms at gun shows.

All over the country, dealers are dropping the gun maker from their
inventory, and consumers are boycotting stores that refuse to drop the
line. Shooting ranges have even refused to admit the company’s
representatives. The boycott has been devastating to Smith & Wesson,
threatening the company’ s future profits and tarnishing its name in the
eyes of every lover of freedom.

Citing the effectiveness of the boycott, some state attorneys general
are claiming that this alone is proof of cartel-like behavior-because
the industry is nearly united in opposition to being plundered. This is
the equivalent of suing taxpayers as a cartel because they all hate new
taxes. And what about the NAACP boycotting South Carolina for its
Confederate flag?
Are blacks to be called a cartel because so many share a certain
political point of view?

And what about the near-universal boycott by college campuses of
products from countries alleged to tolerate child labor (that is, allow
life-enhancing jobs for children who would otherwise starve)? There is
no Justice Department antitrust suit looking into left-wing state
universities as possible violators of antitrust laws. And what about the
systematic (but completely failed) attempt to boycott Microsoft, as seen
at the Boycott Microsoft
website. Why isn’t this group of conspirators hounded out of public

The reason is that antitrust is applied selectively to those
industries and firms deemed to be threats to the Clinton regime. As with
all economic regulation, it is passed and used by political interests to
effect a certain political result.

What the uproar actually indicates is widespread opposition from gun
makers and gun buyers — the only people whose interests should be
considered in this issue — to any increase in government involvement in
their industry. Gunlocks and sales at gun shows are important issues,
but they symbolize the idea of gun control generally. Gun owners are
intensely aware of what the left is really demanding: federal
registration of handguns (favored by Gore) and the eventual rounding up
of anyone possessing guns for anything but government-supervised

Now, you might make the case that S&W was only acting in its own
self-interest. The company has seen what happened to cigarettes and to
Microsoft, and by making a deal with the devil, it was only trying to
head off a worse fate. However, if that was the strategy, it hasn’t
worked, since several states have already said they will go ahead and
include the company in the developing class-action liability suit.

In any case, gun makers and owners are doing liberty a favor by
making sure that S&W’s concessions do not pay off either politically or
financially. They are certainly within their rights to do so, just as
the NAACP is within its rights to avoid doing business in South
Carolina, and Linux fans are free to shun Microsoft. In a free society,
people are free to buy or not to buy, to promote or boycott a product.
The boycott of S&W is a sign that freedom of association is thriving.

And consider the bitter irony of an accusation that gun interests
constitute a cartel for going after S&W. One minute, people buying S&W
firearms are considered public enemies and guilty of spreading violence
and mayhem. In a flash, the rationale is changed, so that people who do
not buy S&W firearms are considered a dangerous cartel refusing to grant
the company its just share of profits in the firearms market. You are
part of a militia conspiracy if you buy, or part of an evil cartel if
you don’t buy.

The old conservative romantics who imagined antitrust could be used
impartially were naive. Anytime you permit the central state to attack
free enterprise and private property, you are permitting political power
to be used against political enemies. And those whom the state regards
as political enemies are a predictable bunch: those who oppose
government’s desire to take away freedom. That’s why all lovers of
freedom should support any industry attacked by antitrust.

Even if you support S&W then, you should also support the other gun
makers for standing up for the right to boycott and the right of
business to manage its own affairs without arbitrary dictates from the
central state. You should support Microsoft as it fights back against an
unjust attack.