I Read It So You Don’t Have To: ‘Liberty from All Masters’
A new book documents how monopoly has become the defining economic problem of our era
What did I read?
Liberty from All Masters: The New American Autocracy vs. the Will of the People by Barry Lynn
So who is this Barry Lynn?
Lynn is the founder and CEO of the Open Markets Institute and the author of two previous books — End of the Line and Cornered — that analyzed the concentration of private power in America. He previously worked at the New America Foundation and was the executive editor of Global Business Magazine.
Give me the 30-second sell.
It wasn’t long ago that the word “monopoly” still felt like a throwback to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Monopolies were relics of the past, and the word conjured up vague half-remembrances of highschool class discussions on Standard Oil, US Steel, “Ma Bell”, or Alcoa.
But as Barry Lynn notes early on in Liberty from All Masters, Americans of many different backgrounds and political stripes are waking up to the fact that monopolization is not an archaic term — it’s the fundamental state of our economy in the early 21st century.
Practically every industry you can think of has become highly concentrated since the 80s, when the Reagan administration effectively stopped enforcing antitrust law. For the past four decades, efficiency and the concept of “consumer welfare” have been the criteria for deciding what’s best for American markets and citizens alike.
Monopolies have again become a prominent feature of American life, and we are all grappling with the downstream effects. Lower wages, higher prices, and the concentration of wealth among a new oligarchy, to be sure. But the consequences also manifest in the decline of entrepreneurship, a lack of options for a growing number of workers, and the gradual extinguishing of the liberty Americans profess to hold so dear.
However, Lynn doesn’t focus solely on the grim facts of the present. He traces the life of what he calls the “American System of Liberty” from revolutionary days up to its diminished present state. Back and forth the pendulum has swung, from economic liberty to economic concentration, and by following its swing, Lynn provides a blueprint for today’s fight against our would-be masters for true economic liberty.
What will I learn, in a nutshell?
Lynn begins by asserting that monopoly is not one of many cascading economic problems that are burying the lower and middle classes in our country — it’s the economic problem of our era.
Liberty from All Masters is the third book in what Lynn describes as his trilogy. The first two books, End of the Line and Cornered, documented monopolies in America and their effects on markets, suppliers, and the citizens who work for them and purchase their goods and services.
This is not the goal of Liberty from All Masters. While you will learn about some of the tactics of certain monopolists — like those in agriculture and tech — Lynn uses those examples to make larger points, such as the failure of our government to enforce the laws on its books. He spends significant time explaining common carrier laws and the devastating effects of our failure to apply them to the newest monopolists in the tech industry. This is all part of a detailed account of the rise of a new autocracy in America, brought about by the neoliberal revolution that began in the 80s.
However, you’ll also learn plenty about how we used to live before the dominance of neoliberal economic ideology. One of Lynn’s primary goals is explaining the American System of Liberty:
a complex network of concepts, laws, and policies that Americans designed with great care over the first two centuries of our nation to protect the liberties of the individual and the democratic institutions of the community by breaking and harnessing the power of the monopolist.
Lynn follows this System of Liberty from its roots in the American revolution to present day, detailing the repeated challenges it has faced from concentrated economic powers and explaining how lawmakers and regulators have beaten back the powers of monopoly over and over.
Lynn spends time toward the end of the book explaining the power of ideas and language systems for helping us not only understand the power structures within our own country, but for harnessing and directing that power to promote individual liberty and democracy.
For instance, you’ll learn why you rarely hear the American people referred to as “citizens” anymore, and why that term has effectively been replaced with the disempowering and bovine “consumer.” You may also notice that Lynn eschews the term “free market” for the less used “open market” — one that is open to newcomers and encourages competition and innovation.
Finally, he offers the reader a vision of redemption. This book, he tells us, is a jeremiad. And traditionally, the jeremiad ends with a vision of restoration. Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of the fundamental problem in our economy, and a growing will to tackle it. The hour is getting late, but our economic destiny isn’t set in stone just yet.
Any particularly juicy bits?
In the chapter titled “Other People’s Gods”, Lynn takes aim at the scientific veneer that economists tend to liberally apply to their profession. From the neoclassical to the neoliberal, there has been a consistent effort by economists to treat their field as a true scientific discipline, rather than what it really is — a social science more akin to sociology or anthropology than mathematics or chemistry.
Lynn traces the deterministic strain in economics from its roots in the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and the mechanistic theories of Leon Walras and Vilfredo Pareto to the neoliberal revolution rung in by thinkers like Robert Bork and Richard Posner.
Using voices from the past like W.E.B Du Bois, Louis Brandeis, and Karl Popper, Lynn indicts the quasi-scientific language, tools, and legal structure that economists have helped build over the past 40 years, calling it little more than “barbarism by men in white shirts and silk ties.”
In sum: “It is clear now that — over the course of but a few years — the subjugation of law to the idea of efficiency, and to a false science designed to promote and measure efficiency, directly threatens all justice, all liberty, and the most basic forms of human security.”
If I ran into you at a cocktail party, which parts of the book would you impress me with?
One of the more eye-opening moments in the book occurs when Lynn uses Uber to illustrate the dangers of new algorithmic pricing models used by tech companies.
If you take Uber at its word, the pricing model is merely a function of supply and demand. When demand “surges” prices go up. Simple, right? The reality is very different, and more than a little exploitative. Instead of a true supply-demand relationship, Uber’s pricing is based on an algorithm that uses your data to estimate how much you are willing to pay before you decide to use some other form of transportation to get to your destination. In other words, different customers are given different prices for reasons they will likely never know.
This atomization of individuals — offering different prices and keeping that pricing secret — allows a company to extract maximum profit while heading off any sort of collective action. After all, when no one knows what anyone else is paying, no one can know if they’re being ripped off. This sort of price discrimination used to be illegal, but is now par for the course.
The result, as Lynn puts it, “Is a system that combines the tools to engage in simple extortion with an almost unlimited license to do so.”
Should I take the plunge and read the whole thing?
Though Lynn describes it as the final part of a trilogy, Liberty from All Masters stands on its own just fine. It may be helpful to read End of the Line or the more recent Cornered first, but they certainly aren’t required reading. If you’re interested in the why behind pervasive inequality, a shrinking middle class, and lowered expectations in American life, Liberty from All Masters is an excellent place to start looking for answers.