The U.S. Only Pretends to Have Free Markets

From plane tickets to cellphone bills, monopoly power costs American consumers billions of dollars a year.

U.S. dollars
Piotr Powietrzynski / Getty

When I arrived in the United States from France in 1999, I felt like I was entering the land of free markets. Nearly everything—from laptops to internet service to plane tickets—was cheaper here than in Europe.

Twenty years later, this is no longer the case. Internet service, cellphone plans, and plane tickets are now much cheaper in Europe and Asia than in the United States, and the price differences are staggering. In 2018, according to data gathered by the comparison site Cable, the average monthly cost of a broadband internet connection was $29 in Italy, $31 in France, $32 in South Korea, and $37 in Germany and Japan. The same connection cost $68 in the United States, putting the country on par with Madagascar, Honduras, and Swaziland. American households spend about $100 a month on cellphone services, the Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates. Households in France and Germany pay less than half of that, according to the economists Mara Faccio and Luigi Zingales.

None of this has happened by chance. In 1999, the United States had free and competitive markets in many industries that, in Europe, were dominated by oligopolies. Today the opposite is true. French households can typically choose among five or more internet-service providers; American households are lucky if they have a choice between two, and many have only one. The American airline industry has become fully oligopolistic; profits per passenger mile are now about twice as high as in Europe, where low-cost airlines compete aggressively with incumbents.

This is in part because the rest of the world was inspired by the United States and caught up, and in part because the United States became complacent and fell behind. In the late 1990s, legally incorporating a business in France took 15 administrative steps and 53 days; in 2016, it took only four days. Over the same period, however, the entry delay in the United States went up from four days to six days. In other words, opening a business used to be much faster in the United States than in France, but it is now somewhat slower.

The irony is that the free-market ideas and business models that benefit European consumers today were inspired by American regulations circa 1990. Meanwhile, in industry after industry in the United States—the country that invented antitrust laws—incumbent companies have increased their market power by acquiring nascent competitors, heavily lobbying regulators, and lavishly spending on campaign contributions. Free markets are supposed to punish private companies that take their customers for granted, but today many American companies have grown so dominant that they can get away with offering bad service, charging high prices, and collecting, exploiting, and inadequately guarding their customers’ private data.

In Europe, greater integration among national economies turned out to be a force for greater competition within individual economies. The very same politicians who disliked free markets at home agreed to promote them at the European level. Why? Because everyone understood that the single market required independent regulators as well as a commitment that individual countries would not subsidize their domestic champions.

As it turned out, politicians were more worried about the regulator being captured by the other country than they were attracted by the opportunity to capture the regulator themselves. French (or German) politicians might not like a strong and independent antitrust regulator within their own borders, but they like even less the idea of Germany (or France) exerting political influence over the EU’s antitrust regulator. As a result, if they are to agree on any supranational institution, it will have a bias toward more independence.

The case of the industrial giants Alstom and Siemens provided an almost perfect test of my theory. After Germany’s Siemens and France’s Alstom decided in 2017 to merge their rail activities, the EU’s two largest and most influential member states both wanted the merger approved. But the EU’s powerful competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, stood her ground. She and her team concluded that the merger “would have significantly reduced competition” in signaling equipment and high-speed trains, “depriving customers, including train operators and rail-infrastructure managers, of a choice of suppliers and products.” The European Commission blocked the merger in February 2019.

In the United States, meanwhile, antitrust enforcement has become less stringent, while the debate over market competition has become highly ideological and untethered from what data actually show.

A central argument of the Chicago school of antitrust—whose laissez-faire approach was influential in persuading American regulators to take a more hands-off attitude toward mergers—is that monopoly power is transient because high profits attract new competitors. If profits rise in one industry and fall in another, one would expect more entry of new firms in the former than in the latter. This used to be true—until the late 1990s.

Since about 2000, however, high profits have persisted, rather than attracting new competitors to the American market. This suggests a shift from an economy where entry acted as a fundamental rebalancing mechanism to one where high profits mostly reflect large barriers to entry. The Chicago school took free entry for granted and underestimated the many ways in which large firms can keep new rivals out.

What the Chicago school got right, however, is that some of these barriers to entry come from excessive regulations. In some industries, licensing rules directly exclude new competitors; in other cases, regulations are complex enough that only the largest companies can afford to comply.

Instead of debating more regulation versus less—as ideologues on the left and right tend to do—Americans should be asking which regulations protect free markets and which ones raise barriers to entry.

Creeping monopoly power has slowly but surely suffocated the middle class. From 2000 to 2018, the median weekly earnings of full-time workers increased from $575 to $886, an increase of 54 percent, but the Consumer Price Index increased by 46 percent. As a result, the real labor income of the typical worker has grown by less than one-third of 1 percent a year for nearly two decades. This explains in part why much of the middle class distrusts politicians, believes the economic system is rigged, and even rejects capitalism altogether.

What the middle class may not fully understand, however, is that much of its stagnation is due to the money that monopolists and oligopolists can squeeze out of consumers. Telecoms and airlines are some of the worst offenders, but barriers to entry also drive up the prices of legal, financial, and professional services. Anticompetitive behavior among hospitals and pharmaceutical companies is a significant contributor to the exorbitant cost of health care in the United States.

In my research on monopolization in the American economy, I estimate that the basket of goods and services consumed by a typical household in 2018 cost 5 to 10 percent more than it would have had competition remained as healthy as it was in 2000. Competitive prices would directly save at least $300 a month per household, translating to a nationwide annual household savings of about $600 billion.

And this figure captures only half of the benefits that increased competition would bring. Competition boosts production, employment, and wages. When firms face competition in the marketplace, they also invest more, which drives up productivity and further increases wages. Indeed, my research indicates that private investment—broadly defined to include plants and equipment, as well as software, research and development, and intellectual property—has been surprisingly weak in recent years, despite low interest rates and record profits and stock prices. Monopoly profits do not translate into increased investment. Instead, just as economic theory predicts, they flow into dividends and share buybacks.

Taking into account these indirect effects, I estimate that the gross domestic product of the United States would increase by almost $1 trillion and labor income by about $1.25 trillion if we could return to the levels of competition that prevailed circa 2000. Profits, on the other hand, would decrease by about $250 billion. Crucially, these figures combine large efficiency gains shared by all citizens with significant redistribution toward wage earners. The median household would earn a lot more in labor income and a bit less in dividends.

If America wants to lead once more in this realm, it must remember its own history and relearn the lessons it successfully taught the rest of the world. While legal scholars and elected officials alike have shown more interest in antitrust in the United States of late, much of that attention has been focused exclusively on the major internet platforms. To promote greater economic prosperity, a resurgence of antitrust would need to tackle both new and old monopolies—the Googles and Facebooks and the pharmaceutical and telecom companies alike.

Regardless of these predictable challenges, renewing America’s traditional commitment to free markets is a worthy endeavor. Truly free and competitive markets keep profits in check and motivate firms to invest and innovate. The 2020 Democratic presidential campaign has already generated some interesting policy proposals, but none that, like restoring free markets, would increase labor income by more than $1 trillion. Taxes cannot solve all of America’s problems. Taxes can redistribute. Competition can redistribute, but it can also grow the pie.

This article was adapted from  The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets.