The Federal Trade Commission’s Path Ahead

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Given my extensive experience as a leader at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), I have developed views about how the Commission should carry out its work. In the months ahead, I hope to realize my vision by continuing the agency’s good work to protect competition while advancing principles that the FTC overlooked or undervalued under the Obama Administration.

First, a word on my antitrust philosophy: I believe in the power of markets—when free of restraints and unnecessary regulations—to provide the best outcomes for consumers. Antitrust enforcers guard the competitive process. We intervene when firms injure competition, and we advocate for consumers when governments consider anticompetitive legislation. But equally important is knowing when not to intervene.

As you know, competitive markets tend toward static efficiency, as firms experience market pressures to price near a measure of their costs. But even periods of monopolistic pricing can be consistent with—if not indispensable to—dynamically efficient markets. That is especially so when dominance reflects a firm’s superior innovation. The continuing rise of technology-driven industries makes that consideration more fundamental than ever. The Arrow-Schumpeter debate remains live and nuanced.

Importantly, competition enforcers should not intervene simply because they dislike certain market outcomes. Antitrust is about protecting the process, not guaranteeing a particular result at a particular time. We trust that markets in which firms must endure competitive pressures will produce favorable outcomes in terms of price, output, quality, and innovation in the long run. But if prices seem excessive or output stagnant at a point in time, we do not use antitrust enforcement to require firms to charge less or to produce more. In short, antitrust is not regulation. As the Supreme Court observed in National Society of Professional Engineers, “competition is the best method of allocating resources in a free market,” and even “occasional exceptions to the presumed consequences of competition” are not grounds for antitrust enforcement.

My record shows that I favor meritorious intervention. But, I believe, it is critical to wield our competition laws with regard for the limits of our knowledge, the risk of getting it wrong, and the relative costs to society of over-enforcement and under-enforcement. Those considerations inform my lodestar of “regulatory humility,” which I will follow in the months ahead. Impressionistic assessments of harm should not drive major interventions in the market. Rather, empiricism should control. Moreover, a rigorous application of economic theory is crucial for understanding the likely effects of business conduct and for informing enforcement decisions.

In this essay, I discuss the basic principles that inform my perspective on antitrust law and outlined certain policy priorities for me going forward. My philosophy of regulatory humility, my belief in the power of competitive markets, and a devotion to empiricism inform my view of antitrust. An important question, however, is how my views translate into specific policy goals for the FTC. I would like to see the Commission pursue some new directions. I specifically mention grounding action in a strong empirical basis, challenging abuses of the government process, and better use of Part 3. But, as I articulated at the Heritage Foundation recently, I have other goals, too. Those include the promotion of economic liberty, trimming the costs that the FTC imposes on business without hindering the Commission’s enforcement abilities, and protecting U.S. firms’ intellectual-property rights. I will continue to pursue those aims energetically.

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Maureen K. Ohlhausen, The Federal Trade Commission’s Path Ahead, 2 Criterion J. on Innovation 31 (2017).