Does Corporate Size Still Matter? Comparative Perspectives on the Politics of Economic Concentration

David Reinecke
Session Organizer:
Sebastian Billows
Friday, June 24, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
119 Moses (Moses Hall)
This session sets out to explore the “moral-political conflicts” (Fourcade) that surround “bigness” in corporate life. We bring together comparative empirical research on the changes in the politics of economic concentration during the last four decades, and try to determine whether a “neo-liberal” turn occurred in this policy field. In other words, we seek to stimulate debate about the historical validity, reach, and cross-national scope of a neoliberal politics of economic concentration.

Concerns over the size of capitalist corporations were of central importance to economic policy since the late 19th century. Beliefs about the economic, political, and societal consequences of economic concentration impacted policy fields as diverse as agriculture, antitrust, industrial development, taxation, and research and technology. Scholarship on the “neoliberal turn” in economic policy-making has claimed that the 1970s brought about profound changes in the politics of economic concentration. Such claims range from diagnoses of changes in economic theories and antitrust enforcement to descriptions of changes in industrial policies and public attitudes. To name just a few examples, this literature has argued that a reevaluation of “bigness” in economic theory was at the center of a transnational “corporate takeover of the market” (Crouch). Others have diagnosed a partial abandonment of the concern for market structure in antitrust enforcement in favor of performance and efficiency criteria (Fligstein, Rodgers). Still others have claimed that changes in public sentiments regarding big and bureaucratic corporations decoupled antitrust policies from their traditional populist political foundations (Hofstadter). Those traditional policy repertoires were replaced by new narratives that focused on economic performance.

In detail, our papers offer insight into three focal questions. First, they explore the origins of concerns over “bigness”. Very different interests and coalitions discussed corporate concentration in different policy domains, historical episodes, and regions. Exemplary key moments of the history of “bigness” include early American agricultural, railroad, and tax policies, the later progressive antitrust-movement, and the influence of “ordoliberal” thought on European integration and competition policy since the 1950s. 

Our second question focuses on the commonalities and differences between the American and European approaches to corporate “bigness”. Both regimes follow two distinct trajectories on the level of enforcement. Although quite similar from a legal standpoint, US authorities have been considered more lenient towards concentration than the European Union. In the past two decades, this resulted in diverging rulings towards IT giants Microsoft and Google, for example. Overall, scholars have argued, the American regime seems to have a higher tolerance for market dominance. Is the diagnosis of diverging regimes defensible? What economic, political, and organizational,processes can account for diverging practices?

Our third question addresses the rise of competition watchdogs. Starting from the 1950s, governments have set up semi-autonomous regulators, such as DG Competition at the EU level, Bundeskartellamt in Germany, and Autorité de la concurrence in France. We set out to map how watchdogs interact with their environment. How do they respond to demands made by political stakeholders? What is the role played by informal interactions with business associations?

The Impaired Economization of European Antitrust: The Quarrel over the “Effects-Based Approach” in European Competition Policy
Timur Ergen, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies; Sebastian Kohl, Uppsala University