Often, when I purchase my steak and the fixings, I can’t help but marvel at what put this succulent slab of American beef in the grocer’s butcher case. After the farmer raised the animal, a highly sophisticated network of processors, distributors, truck drivers, and store associates made sure my ribeye was available for purchase. America’s consumption privilege is the envy of the world because innovation has created the systems that provide even our most trivial desires, almost on demand.
Innovation begets innovation and Americans are accustomed to having everything at our fingertips due to our remarkable history and free market values. A century ago, Henry Ford transformed access to personal transportation with his famed assembly lines and, more importantly, the efficiencies of vertical integration. The ability to control his own supply of steel and electricity enabled Ford to mass produce an affordable automobile for everyman that would spark America’s famed car culture.
The companies we regularly interact with in the modern day are a product of Ford’s legacy. Brands like Apple and Amazon have built complex logistical empires that not only produce goods and services customers want and need, but they provide platforms for countless businesses to reach new consumers as well. The iPhone in our pocket, with more technological power than the Saturn V rocket that took NASA astronauts to the moon, is an unlimited library of information and a marketplace of retailers whose products will be on our doorstep in a matter of hours (quite possibly delivered by a Ford vehicle). As a result, Apple and Amazon have fully integrated into the American consumer consciousness just as closely as Walmart or any major grocery chain.
We ought to celebrate the uniquely American trait of high expectations for product availability. However, supply chain disruptions over the past two years have proved to be an anathema to our commercial DNA, challenging businesses and consumers alike. A global pandemic, economic volatility, and other geopolitical events have led to unprecedented shortages of new cars, baby formula, and yes, even toilet paper. But instead of unleashing market-based innovation to solve these problems, Congress stands poised to restrict the ability of our companies to create effective efficiencies.
A bipartisan group of Senators has introduced several pieces of legislation that, if enacted, will give federal bureaucrats the power to hijack how some of the world’s most successful companies make decisions. One of these bills, Minnesota Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar’s American Innovation and Choice Online Act, would implement controls on how online platforms of a certain size position and market their own proprietary products. Designed to enhance the federal government’s antitrust regulatory powers, the measure would effectively punish a company like Amazon for the innovation to integrate goods and services with the delivery of those same goods and services.
Klobuchar’s bill has several Republican sponsors including Sens. Chuck Grassly (IA), Josh Hawley (MO), and John Kennedy (LA) and it’s not a stretch to assume these conservative stalwarts have Big Tech in their crosshairs given the outrageous double-standard of censorship employed by social media companies against conservative viewpoints over the years. Additional items in the bill appear written to prevent platforms from discriminating or acting with bias, ostensibly based on political or cultural viewpoints and values.
A former target of Big Tech’s censorship, Sen. Rand Paul (KY), sympathized with his Republican colleagues in a recent column where he blasted YouTube’s “Orwellian tactic of disappearing messages that did not adhere to the official party line.” However, he is not joining the revenge crusade. Instead, Sen. Paul argues that Washington’s impulse to regulate would do nothing to prevent anti-conservative bias online, and would instead ultimately stifle competition and innovation to the detriment of all consumers.
“Rather than pursue even stronger antitrust laws,” he writes. “Congress should allow the free market to thrive where consumers, not the government, decide how big a company should be.”
Sen. Paul’s position against giving the federal government greater ability to punish innovation should resonate with anyone who participates in today’s economy. Remember, it was all levels of government – not business – that closed stores, enforced mandates, printed money, and reallocated resources at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, companies like Amazon, UberEats, and grocery stores were holding together the web of commerce and ensuring the continued delivery of goods. Now, with the resulting record inflation, soaring gas prices, and severe shortages, it would be better to empower the best innovators to help fix the mess – not the government that played a key role in creating these crises.
The Republican Senators who signed on to Klobuchar’s bill risk falling into a trap. There is a compelling case to be made for government intervention in the name of protecting the free market from monopolies in certain, preferably rare, circumstances. However, political risk analysis firm Baron Public Affairs reports that today’s organized antitrust movement is primarily on the left - and has aims beyond traditional consumer welfare standards. Conservatives who support the innovation that creates a thriving economy should be careful to separate their consumer protection desires from their zeal to extract revenge against Big Tech’s censorship and anti-conservative bias.
It’s easy to forget how good Americans have it, but not-so-full shelves, and the rapidly rising prices should be a wake-up call to living standard innovators have given us in the past. Even under today’s circumstances, I can articulate the process of putting a steak in the butcher’s case. The workings of the supply chain from the farm to the processor to the distributor to the store make sense. But what truly impresses me, is the fact that I can also go across the street – to the competitor – where I will find the same case full of the same cuts of steak. Then I can go to the other side of town and find it again. And it’s the same in every American city.
Now that is impressive. And the companies that make it happen are much more protective of consumers than a politician’s bill.