US President Joe Biden’s new executive order on “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” is more significant for what it says than for what it does. In fact, the order doesn’t actually order anything. Rather, it “encourages” federal agencies with authority over market competition to use their existing legal powers to do something about the growing problem of monopoly and cartelization in the United States. In some cases, the relevant agencies are asked merely to “consider” ramping up enforcement; in others, they are directed to issue regulations, but the content of those regulations remains largely up to them.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the order’s tentative language as mere rhetoric. Antitrust is the main body of law governing market competition in the US, and it has been the object of sustained attack by business interests and conservative intellectuals for more than 50 years. Biden is the first president since Harry Truman to take a strong public anti-monopoly stand, and he has backed it up by appointing ardent anti-monopoly advocates to his government.
The executive order is ambitious in its scope and style. In strongly worded passages, it accuses businesses of monopolistic and unfair practices in major industries, including technology, agriculture, health care, and telecommunications. It laments the decline of government antitrust enforcement, and identifies numerous harms that have resulted – including economic stagnation and rising inequality.
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