From Barry C. Lynn’s “The Case for Breaking Up Wal-Mart” (Harper’s: 24 July 2006):
It is now twenty-five years since the Reagan Administration eviscerated America’s century-long tradition of antitrust enforcement. For a generation, big firms have enjoyed almost complete license to use brute economic force to grow only bigger. And so today we find ourselves in a world dominated by immense global oligopolies that every day further limit the flexibility of our economy and our personal freedom within it. There are still many instances of intense competition — just ask General Motors.
But since the great opening of global markets in the early 1990s, the tendency within most of the systems we rely on for manufactured goods, processed commodities, and basic services has been toward ever more extreme consolidation. Consider raw materials: three firms control almost 75 percent of the global market in iron ore. Consider manufacturing services: Owens Illinois has rolled up roughly half the global capacity to supply glass containers. We see extreme consolidation in heavy equipment; General Electric builds 60 percent of large gas turbines as well as 60 percent of large wind turbines. In processed materials; Corning produces 60 percent of the glass for flat-screen televisions. Even in sneakers; Nike and Adidas split a 60-percent share of the global market. Consolidation reigns in banking, meatpacking, oil refining, and grains. It holds even in eyeglasses, a field in which the Italian firm Luxottica has captured control over five of the six national outlets in the U.S. market.
The stakes could not be higher. In systems where oligopolies rule unchecked by the state, competition itself is transformed from a free-for-all into a kind of private-property right, a license to the powerful to fence off entire marketplaces, there to pit supplier against supplier, community against community, and worker against worker, for their own private gain. When oligopolies rule unchecked by the state, what is perverted is the free market itself, and our freedom as individuals within the economy and ultimately within our political system as well.