As I read the coverage of all that Microsoft foofarah a few weeks ago, I was struck by something odd. The people who are really out for Microsoft’s blood are people like Netscape, various computer manufacturers, and other companies who have been seriously screwed over by Microsoft doing some pretty messed up stuff. Some of these people have lost a lot of money, and all of them have lost a lot of freedom of action, because Microsoft was a butthead at them (a brief word, just so you know where I’m coming from, on what being a corporate butthead means to me. Offering price incentives or preferred stocking to buyers who sign exclusivity contracts is being competitive. Refusing to deal with someone unless they sign said contract makes you a butthead in my book).
However, the complaints and sufferings of all these people are not what got talked about, on the whole. Instead, there was a lot of talk about “the freedom to innovate” and the consequences for consumers. Which was for me, initially, rather confusing. Microsoft’s sins against the consumers have been indirect, for the most part, and it seemed odd that consumers should be at the center of the debate.
Upon further reflection, though, it became clear that the discussion has to be carried out on that level because of what categories of people antitrust law, and to a certain extent all of American society, considers deserving of special protection by the law.
In traditional laissez-faire capitalism, theoretically no one is a protected class, but in practice the large capitalists are the protected class–their massive financial clout gives them special freedoms of action, and thus a government which refuses to regulate economic activity in effect privileges the large capitalists. In traditional communism and socialism, theoretically the workers are the protected class–government is supposed to intervene to make sure the workers are getting a fair deal.
There isn’t really a surviving system which privileges the small capitalist. There was a political philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries called artisanal republicanism, which glorified the individual skilled craftsman over unskilled labor and unskilled capital. The remnants of it are why our collective national gut still thinks it’s a bad thing for mom-and-pop stores and family farms to fall by the wayside.
In modern American society, however, the privileged class is the consumer. There is substantial debate and skepticism about whether government should intervene if businesses are being hurt, or if workers are getting the shaft. But it is more or less generally accepted that if the consumer is being hurt, government can and should intervene. “Let the buyer beware” no longer applies; we expect the government to protect us from unjustly high prices and shoddy products (see, for example, the current furor over gas prices).
In our lives as producers, meanwhile, we receive little active and systematic attention. We do get legislation controlling all forms of discrimination, and minimum wage laws, but those laws are the constant subject of debate, and don’t provide for systematic protection of any segment of the productive sector. Antitrust law, however, is generally not debated in principle. Businesses try to make cases that their business is too unique to be subject to antitrust law, but they don’t attack the fundamental idea. This is because the monopoly equation creates goods for the large capitalist while screwing the consumer, and the consumer is a protected class. Globalization is a lot more controversial because it creates goods for the large capitalist while screwing over the worker, and neither of those are protected classes.
I was a budding socialist when I was younger, and I think the sentiment that spurred that was the fact that although I’ve been unimpressed by socialist institutions, I think that the workers should be a protected class. I don’t think capital is particularly worthy of protection, and I’m disturbed by the notion that our society protects us as consumers but not as producers. I would prefer to think of my identity as a consumer being secondary to my identity as a producer.