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US and the UK Ought to Advance Freedom Consistently
[March 21, 2003]

By S. M. Oliva

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has proved to be an invaluable ally in the U.S.-led effort to disarm Saddam Hussein and liberate Iraq. Yet while the Bush administration and conservative media look at Blair with respect and appreciation, those of us who support capitalism must not forget that Blair is the head of a Labour Party government. This means Blair's belief in freedom for the Iraqi people does not necessarily extend to the people of the United Kingdom as well.

Within Blair's own cabinet, there is a growing sense that postwar British politics will require Labour to emphasize its traditional socialist roots. Peter Hain, the secretary of state for Wales and a chief Blair ally, outlined the government's potential direction just before the start of hostilities in Iraq:

"I think we have got to do a lot more to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and not just lever up the level of incomes of those who are poor. What we have to do is to communicate with and involve our core supporters, party members and our backbench MPs much more effectively in this great enterprise of this Labour Government that aims to completely change our society to make it much more just, much more economically successful and much more democratic...We move forward on a basis where we are addressing more clearly traditional but modern objectives as well such as the redistribution of wealth and income."

One can only hope Secretary Hain is not put in charge of the Iraqi rebuilding. If anything, Iraq is a shining example of what "redistribution of wealth and income" can do for a society-in this case, the seizure of all private wealth by a dictator who "redistributed" it to himself and his favored allies.

Labour should learn a lesson from the plight of Iraq's people, and of the millions more throughout the world who live under tyrannical regimes: abandon respect for individual rights and private property at your own peril. Once a society moves away from its devotion to individual rights, all bets are off, and civilization itself is reduced to a game of deciding which gang of thugs can amass their forces swiftly enough. Saddam Hussein himself seized power in a coup, and managed to maintain power through the decades by systematically brutalizing his people. In the end, however, Hussein still has his defenders (even among American antiwar protesters) who emphasize his devotion to creating a socialist state.

A small, but telling example of Britain's potential plight: Earlier this week, another Labour minister, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt, announced that her office would block four of five bids to takeover Safeway PLC, a major British grocer not affiliated with the U.S. company of the same name. The acquisition of Safeway, a deal estimated at nearly $5.5 billion, was to have been a major free-market success story, as shareholders stood to profit handsomely from the competitive bidding. But Hewitt's decision effectively limits the bidding to a single party. Upon news of Hewitt's actions, Safeway's stock declined nearly 10% in value.

Hewitt took action, she said, because there was "a significant prospect that these mergers may be expected to result in a substantial lessening of competition." Note the multiple conditionals in that sentence. Hewitt has no actual evidence of what the effect on competition would be (or, for that matter, what a 'lessening of competition' actually means.) In antitrust, you see, it's sufficient to simply accuse a firm of something, then place the burden on the firm to defend itself. That's precisely what Hewitt did; the four blocked firms now must face an official "antitrust inquiry," where the government will face no burden of proof, leaving the firms to prove a negative-that their acquisition of Safeway won't harm competition now or in the future.

Antitrust is not a means of preventing fraud or ensuring honesty in business dealings. Rather, it is the transfer of control over private businesses from their owners to un-elected, unaccountable government bureaucrats. Hewitt, in fact, was only acting on the advice of her bureaucratic minions at Britain's "Office of Fair Trading," an Orwellian-named agency if ever there was one.

Obviously, antitrust isn't unique to Britain. The United States maintains extensive antitrust regimes at the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice. Just this week, the heads of those agencies spoke in New York about antitrust's expanding future in this country. FTC Chairman Timothy Muris, in particular, eagerly announced his agency would expand their power to include undoing mergers that have already been completed, notably in the hospital sector (long a favorite target of FTC lawyers.)

What's curious, however, is that Muris and his U.S. antitrust brethren consistently spin their work as an integral part of the free market. As they see it, they protect "competition" by violating private property rights. Unlike their British counterparts, U.S. officials do not argue their work is part of a larger scheme to redistribute wealth and income. This creates an odd conundrum: antitrust cannot simultaneously exist as a characteristic of socialism and capitalism.

You can guess where capitalism stands. Antitrust is not simply incompatible with capitalism, the two are both moral and practical opposites. Capitalism relies on reason and voluntary trade. Antitrust relies on force and ignorance. Capitalism places business decisions in the hands of producers-the businessmen. Antitrust places business decisions in the hands of antitrust bureaucrats-often lawyers who couldn't make it in private practice or actual business.

As American and British forces close in on Baghdad, ask yourself this: Should the regime our governments install in Iraq be based on capitalism or socialism (keeping in mind Saddam Hussein went with the latter.) If you answer "capitalism," then ask yourself this: If capitalism is good enough for Iraq, isn't it also good enough for the United States and Great Britain?

 

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