Concern over the power of “monopoly” is often given as justification for government intervention in the economy. It shouldn’t be. There is no logically consistent definition of monopoly that warrants interference in market. Furthermore, government efforts to disperse market power tend rather to concentrate it, particularly among those best at playing politics, rather than helping consumers.
What is this monopoly thing that is so feared?
Monopoly is often described as two-pronged: complete control over a unique resource, and the ability to be a “price maker”. (“Price maker” means to set the price you want to sell at rather than responding to market conditions and being a “price taker”). Once you define monopoly, you realize what a meaningless concept it is. One of the two prongs is inevitable; the other is impossible.
If monopoly means control over a unique resource that no competitors can sell, everything is a monopoly. Every single product is unique. I have a complete monopoly on the product “public appearances by Isaac Morehouse”. No one else can offer it. What kind of power does this give me?
Sadly, I cannot charge whatever I want for public appearances simply because I have a monopoly. I’ve tried, and so far no one has been willing to pay $50,000 for this unique good over which I have sole control. (Email me if you’re interested.) In other words, I (and everyone and everything else) satisfy the first prong of the definition of monopoly, but that doesn’t help me with the second prong. I’m not a price maker.
In fact, no one is a price maker. OK, I suppose anyone can make any price they want to, but in order to actually sell something – no matter how valuable – they’re constrained. Think of a product that you need badly and can’t really live modern life without. How about gasoline. Why doesn’t Exxon start charging $20, $100, $1 million per gallon at the pump? What would happen?
Life would change pretty dramatically for some people, maybe just at the margin for others, but almost no one would pay that price. Even if all the oil in the world were controlled by one company (a scenario almost impossible to imagine absent government intervention), they still would not be a price maker.
Even complete control over a resource that people really need does not a price maker make. The firm faces substitute goods as a very real form of competition. McDonald’s burgers are not competing only against Wendy’s burgers. They are competing against Subway’s subs, mom’s PB&J, or going without lunch altogether. Firms are held in check not just by substitute goods, but by potential competition. If gas is too costly, new or old technologies become more profitable. Bicycles and solar cars both take a chunk of consumers.
So the first prong of monopoly, control over a unique resource, is everywhere. The other prong, the ability to be a price-maker, is impossible. In reality, firms and consumers are constantly moving up and down to varying degrees on being price takers and makers. There is no complete maker or taker. The market is a process of discovery, and if we want the best outcomes, we need to worry about keeping the process free and unencumbered, rather than the particular distribution of resources among firms at any given snapshot in time.
Efforts to fight the myth of monopoly and make the market look more like make-believe “perfect competition” make things worse. They often result in the one kind of monopoly that is dangerous; the one maintained by force. Forced monopoly, or forced price floors or ceilings, or the breakup of firms or the prevention of mergers, or any other intervention creates artificial markets. They shift entrepreneurial activity away from innovation to serve consumers and towards efforts to ensure regulation benefits me and harms my competitors.
We’re all monopolists, yet none of us are price makers. Stop worrying about it.