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Appeasing the Public Interest God
[January 25, 2003]

By S. M. Oliva

Today the U.S. Justice Department crossed the line when they decided the First Amendment no longer applied where antitrust issues are concerned. According to today’s New York Times, the DOJ will announce a “consent decree” today with Village Voice Media and New Times Media, two successful publishers of alternative weekly newspapers. The decree ignores the business judgment of the companies’ executives, and substitutes government fiat for market decisions. As a result, the United States government is now in the position of forcing newspapers to publish against their will. Such a fundamental violation of the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment would never be tolerated in this country, except in the context of antitrust, where all reason and morality seem to go out the window.

The facts of the case are as follows: Village Voice and New Times compete in a number of cities. In two particular cities one side is dominant, the Voice in Los Angeles, and New Times in Cleveland. The combined losses for the runners-up in each market topped $20 million annually. Rather than continue losing money in perpetuity, the two companies struck a deal. Village Voice shut down their unprofitable Cleveland paper, and New Times did the same in Los Angeles. Both sides sold the assets from the shuttered papers to the other company at fair market value. Most people would applaud such a sensible business deal that put the interest of the company’s owners first.

Most people, however, does not include the Justice Department. The government began an immediate investigation, claiming antitrust laws were broken. Consumers supposedly have been denied the benefits of competition by these two companies “colluding” to allocate markets between them. Never mind the fact that consumers have no right to demand somebody produce a product for them. Never mind the fact that both companies were seeking to stop significant economic losses that negatively impacted their financial viability. In the context of antitrust, a company that acts in its own self-interest is presumed to be acting illegally. No, the DOJ said, you must put the “public interest” before your own.

And who decides the public interest? The DOJ, of course. Not because Justice Department lawyers have superior knowledge of the publishing industry, but simply because they have power. What one can’t earn in life, one must steal, and thievery is the prevalent code of honor among antitrust regulators. In recent years, this problem has become significantly worse. Antitrust no longer pretends to be about protecting consumers; instead, it’s little more than a scheme to put highly unqualified lawyers in charge of every sector of the U.S. economy.

Under today’s settlement, Village Voice and New Times must divest the assets of their failed newspapers to a third company—chosen by the Justice Department—who will receive the benefit of pre-existing resources, customer lists, office equipment, and even the names of the previous papers. In effect, the new company will walk in to a ready-made operation, courtesy of the Justice Department. The fact that this entire charade is a violent act of theft appears lost on the DOJ, which will no doubt applaud themselves for another job well done.

Antitrust is not concerned with profits or achievement, but process. According to the DOJ, it’s better that a company suffer debilitating losses and potential bankruptcy rather than deal with one’s competitors. The process of business is what’s most important in this worldview: a company must behave according to the arbitrary whims of regulators rather than obsess over achievement. Antitrust is thus a vicious, man-hating ideology that treats all businessmen as sacrificial lambs. Consent decrees like the one signed by New Times and Village Voice represent the ritual slaughter—antitrust regulators bleeding a goat dry to appease their Holy God, the “public interest.”

But some good may come out of this case, albeit too late for New Times and Village Voice. The media often turns a blind eye to antitrust, but in this case the innocent victims are two of their own. If nothing else, this sham settlement will get press attention that few other consent decrees receive. Those of us who believe that capitalism and individual rights—not tyranny and mysticism—are the foundation of a just society must use the opportunity afforded by this case to forcefully condemn the Justice Department and its rogue antitrust regulators. For today’s action is, in fact, a renewed declaration of war against the First Amendment, private property, and the very principle that government is subordinate to moral law.

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