FTC Rulemaking Under UMC Could Mean Return of the National Nanny

[The 12th entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is from guest contributor Steven J. Cernak, a partner in the antitrust and competition practice of BonaLaw in Detroit, Michigan. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been in the antitrust-enforcement business for more than 100 years. Its new leadership is considering some of the biggest changes ever in its enforcement methods. Instead of a detailed analysis of each case on its own merits, some FTC leaders now want its unelected bureaucrats to write competition rules for the entire economy under its power to stop unfair methods of competition. Such a move would be bad for competition and the economy—and for the FTC itself.

The FTC enforces the antitrust laws through its statutory authority to police unfair methods of competition (UMC). Like all antitrust challengers, the FTC now must conduct a detailed analysis of the specific actions of particular competitors. Whether the FTC decides to challenge actions initially in its own administrative courts or in federal courts, eventually it must convince independent judges that the challenged conduct really does harm competition. When finalized, those decisions set precedent. Future parties can argue their particular details are different or otherwise require a different outcome. As a result, the antitrust laws slowly evolve in ways understandable to all.

Some members of FTC’s new leadership have argued that the agency should skip the hard work of individual cases and instead issue blanket rules to cover competitive situations across the economy. Since taking over in the new administration, they have taken steps that seem to make it easier for the FTC to issue such broad competition rules. Doing so would be a mistake for several reasons.

First, it is far from clear that Congress gave the FTC the authority to issue such rules. Also, any such grant of quasi-legislative power to this independent agency might be unconstitutional. The FTC already gets to play prosecutor and judge in many cases. Becoming a legislature might be going too far. Other commentators, both in this symposium and elsewhere, have detailed those arguments. But however those arguments shake out, the FTC will need to take the time and resources to fight off the inevitable challenges.

But even if it can, the FTC should not. The case-by-case approach allows for detailed analysis, making it more likely to be correct. If there are any mistakes, they only affect those parties.

If it turns to competition rulemaking, how will the FTC gain the knowledge and develop the wisdom to develop rules that apply across large swaths of the economy for an unlimited time? Will it apply the same rules to companies with 8% and 80% market share? And to companies making software or automobiles or flying passengers across the country? And will it apply those rules today and next year, no matter the innovations that occur in between? The hubris to think that some all-knowing Washington wizards can get all that right, all the time, is staggering.

Yes, there are some general antitrust rules, like price-fixing agreements being illegal because they harm consumers. But those rules were developed by many lawyers, economists, judges, and witnesses through decades of case-by-case analyses and, even today, parties can argue to a court that they don’t apply to their particular facts. A one-size-fits-all rule won’t have even that flexibility.

For example, what if the FTC develops a rule based on, say, an investigation of toilet-bowl manufacturers that all price-fixing, even if the fixed price is reasonable, is automatically illegal. How would such a rigid rule handle, say, a joint license with a single price issued by competing music composers? Or could a single rule that anticipates the very different facts of Trenton Potteriesand Broadcast Musicbe written in a way that is both short enough to be understood but broad enough to anticipate all potential future facts? Perhaps the rule inspired by Trenton Potteries could be adjusted when the Broadcast Music facts become known. But then, that is just back to the detailed, case-by-case, analysis that we have now, except with the FTC rule-makers changing the rules rather than an independent judge.

Any new FTC rules could conflict with the court opinions generated by antitrust cases brought by the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division, state attorneys general, or private parties. For instance, the FTC and the Division generally divide up the industries that make up the economy based on expertise and experience. Should the competitive rules differ by enforcer? By industry?

As an example, consider, say, a hypothetical automatic-transmission company whose smallest products can be used in light-duty pickup trucks while the bulk of its product line is used in the largest heavy-duty trucks and equipment. Traditionally, the FTC has reviewed antitrust issues in the light-duty industry while the Division has taken heavy-duty. Should the antitrust rules affecting this hypothetical company’s light-duty sales be different than those affecting the heavy-duty sales based solely on the enforcer and not the applicable competitive facts?

Antitrust is a law-enforcement regime with rules that have changed slowly over decades through individual cases, as economic understandings have evolved. It could have been a regulatory regime, but elected officials did not make that choice. Antitrust could be changed now to a regulatory regime. Individual rules could be changed. Such monumental changes, however, should only be made by Congress, as is being debated now, not by three unelected FTC officials.

In the 1970s, the FTC overreached on rules about deceptive marketing and was slapped down by Congress, the courts, and the public. The Washington Post criticized it as “the national nanny.” Its reputation and authority suffered. We did not need a national nanny then. We don’t need one today, hectoring us to follow overbroad, ill-fitting rules designed by insulated “experts” and not subject to review.

The FTC has very important roles to play regarding understanding and protecting competition in the U.S. economy (before even getting to its crucial consumer-protection mission.) Even with potential increases in its budget, the FTC, like all of us, will have limited resources, time, expertise, and reputation. It should not squander any of that on an ill-fated, quixotic, and hubristic effort to tell everyone how to compete. Instead, the FTC should focus on what it does best: challenging the bad actions of bad actors and convincing a court that it got it right. That is how the FTC can best protect America’s consumers, as its (nicely redesigned) website proclaims.

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FTC Rulemaking Under UMC Could Mean Return of the National Nanny