In a recently published article for the journal Democracy, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation lays out “The Case for Goliath” (registration required) – i.e., for returning to the good old days of price-and-entry regulation and cartelized industries. No, seriously.
I’ll give Lind credit for daring to go where his fellow devotees of “nostalgianomics” fear to tread. Many on the left these days look back fondly at the ’50s and ’60s when activist government and strong unions coincided with a narrowing income distribution. What they fail to recognize, or at least admit, is that the political economy of that supposed golden age rested on a systematic muting of competition, both by circumstance and deliberate policy. The devastation of Europe and Japan in World War II, price-and-entry controls, high trade barriers, and the threat of antitrust enforcement against industry leaders all combined to make heavy unionization and above-market wages for union workers economically viable.
This glaring oversight is understandable. There is, after all, overwhelming economic evidence that competition beats cartelization of industry hands down. When government restricts entry by new firms, the predictable result is a stifling of innovation. For example, consider this admission by former FCC chairman Michael Powell: “Because the history of the FCC is, when something happens that it doesn’t understand, kill it. We tried to kill cable. We tried to kill long-distance. When [MCI founder] Bill McGowan starting stringing out microwave towers that threatened AT&T, the FCC tried to stop him. The FCC tried to kill cable because it was going to threaten broadcasting.” (For more details on the the FCC’s lamentable track record, see here.)
The upshot is that progressive fantasies of a return to the good old days are just that – fantasies. Private-sector unions have withered and shrunk not because of changes in labor law, but because unionized firms haven’t been able to hack it in the new, more competitive marketplace (see “Auto industry, U.S.”). So the only way to get back to the days of Big Labor is by throttling the main engine of innovation and productivity: competition. And, well, that just doesn’t sound very progressive, does it?
Lind, though, grasps the nettle and chooses cartels and unions over economic progress. He does try to argue that we can have our cake and eat it too, but his case boils down to a crude post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: the big move toward cartelization in the ’30s was followed by good times in the ’50s and ’60s (let’s not talk about the ’70s), so therefore cartelization was good for the economy! Yes, and the Union won the Civil War with inferior generals, so perhaps poor military leadership is a key to victory. The fact is, the strong economic performance of the early postwar decades occurred in spite of, not because of, widespread restrictions on competition.
Though the anticompetitive nostrums Lind peddles are pure poison, he nonetheless deserves commendation. By identifying correctly the link between cartelization and strong unions, Lind highlights the essentially reactionary nature of progressives’ infatuation with Big Labor. He has therefore, however unwittingly, performed a public service.