It’s the most obvious criticism of mainstream, especially neoclassical, economics.
All of the major models and policy proposals of neoclassical economics—from the theory of the firm through the gains from trade to the welfare theorems—are based on the assumption of perfect competition.
But, as is clear in the diagram above, if there’s imperfect competition (such as a single seller or monopoly), the price is higher (PM is greater than PC), the quantity supplied is lower (QM is less than QC)—and, in consequence, excess profits are not competed away and the amount of employment is lower. (Of course, the monopolist can increase demand, and therefore output, through advertising, which for mainstream economists makes no sense for perfectly competitive firms since they are presumed to be able to “sell all they want to at the going price.”)
The existence of imperfect competition by itself undoes many of the major propositions of neoclassical economics—including (as I explained back in April) the idea that there’s no such thing as a free lunch (since, as in the Production Possibilities Frontier depicted above, point A inside the frontier represents an inefficient allocation of resources, and no new resources or technology would be required, just the elimination of monopolies and oligopolies, to move to any point—B, C, or D—on the frontier).
Readers may not believe it but imperfect competition is mostly an after-thought in mainstream economics. It’s there (and extensively modeled) but only after all the heavy lifting is done based on the presumption of perfect competition—and then none of the major theoretical and policy-related propositions is revised based on the existence of imperfect competition. (The usual mainstream argument is either imperfect competition isn’t extensive or, even if prevalent, imperfectly competitive firms act much like perfectly competitive firms, not restricting output or raising prices by very much. Therefore, perfect competition remains a valid approximation to real-world economies.)
Now, however, imperfect competition seems to have returned as an area of concern—in the White House Council of Economic Advisers and in the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The irony, of course, is that the market power of a few giant firms in many industries has been growing after decades of neoliberalism and the celebration of free markets.
As James A. Schmitz, Jr. explains for the Minneapolis Fed, new research
shows that monopolies are not well-run businesses, but instead are deeply inefficient. Monopolies do drive up prices, as conventional theory suggests, but because they also reduce productivity, they often ultimately destroy most of an industry’s profits. These productivity losses are a dead-weight loss for the economy, and far from trivial.
The new research also shows that monopolists typically increase prices by using political machinery to limit the output of competing products—usually by blocking low-cost substitutes. By limiting supply of these competing products, the monopolist drives up demand for its own. Thus, in contrast to conventional theory, the monopolist actually produces more of its own product than it would in a competitive market, not less. But because production of the substitutes is restricted, total output falls.
The reduction in productivity exacts a toll on all of society. But the blocking of low-cost substitutes particularly harms the poor, who might not be able to afford the monopolist’s product. Thus, monopolies drive the poor out of many markets.
The last time monopolies came to the fore in the United States was during the first Great Depression, when Thurman Arnold (from 1938 to 1943) ran the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice, “taking aim at a broad range of targets, from automakers to Hollywood movie producers to the American Medical Association” in order to protect society from monopoly.
Is it any surprise that now, in the midst of the second Great Depression, attention is being directed once again to the idea that gigantic national and multinational corporations with growing market power are responsible for reducing productivity and crushing low-cost substitutes, thus hurting workers and the poor?
One possibility is to get tough again with antitrust legislations and rulings, and try to restore some semblance of competitive markets. The other is to resist the temptation to turn the clock back to some mythical time of small firms and perfect competition and, instead, through nationalization and worker control, transform the existing firms and allow them to operate in the interest of society as a whole.