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The Revenge Origins of the Sherman Antitrust Act

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With new discussion of regulating and even possibly breaking up social media and tech giants like Facebook and Amazon, or blocking the proposed acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T, antitrust policy is back in current events. Coincidentally, revenge and spite motivations for politicians are also back in political news, given the aftermath of the contentious 2016 presidential election. It has become all too obvious that many Republicans and Democrats are refusing to work with, and even intentionally obstructing, President Donald Trump’s agenda simply because he personally attacked them (and continues to do so). In addition, his runner up and arch-nemesis Hillary Clinton continues to blame everyone except herself for losing the presidential race. It is all too fitting, then, that revenge and spite actually played a role in the origins of the first federal antitrust law, the 1890 Sherman Act.

Historians as well as economists have long analyzed the broader special interest motivations for the Sherman Act. The traditional narrative is that big business Republicans supported antitrust legislation because it would deflect attention away from the true source of many monopolies: the protective tariff. Dead letter and poorly enforced legislation would be of little threat to large businesses while also allowing the tariff to go untouched, and possibly even raised. In his new book titled The Progressive Era, edited by the present writer, Murray Rothbard supported this narrative.

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