Frenchman Jean Tirole of the University of Toulouse won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for devising methods to improve regulation of industries dominated by a few large firms. According to Tirole, large firms undermine the efficient functioning of the market economy by being able to influence the prices and the quantity of products.
Consequently, this undermines the well being of individuals in the economy. On this way of thinking the inefficiency emerges as a result of the deviation from the ideal state of the market as depicted by the “perfect competition” framework.
The “Perfect Competition” Model
In the world of perfect competition a market is characterized by the following features:
- There are many buyers and sellers in the market
- Homogeneous products are traded
- Buyers and sellers are perfectly informed
- No obstacles or barriers to enter the market
In the world of perfect competition, buyers and sellers have no control over the price of the product. They are price takers.
The assumption of perfect information and thus absolute certainty implies that there is no room left for entrepreneurial activity. For in the world of certainty there are no risks and therefore no need for entrepreneurs.
If this is so, who then introduces new products and how? According to the proponents of the perfect competition model any real situation in a market that deviates from this model is regarded as sub-optimal to consumers' well being. It is then recommended that the government intervene whenever such deviation occurs.
Contrary to this way of thinking, competition is not on account of a large number of participants as such, but as a result of a large variety of products.
Competition in Products, Not Firms
The greater the variety is, the greater the competition will be and therefore more benefits for the consumer.
Once an entrepreneur introduces a product — the outcome of his intellectual effort — he acquires 100 per cent of the newly-established market.
Following the logic of the popular way of thinking, however, this situation must not be allowed for it will undermine consumers' well being. If this way of thinking (i.e., the perfect competition model) were to be strictly adhered to, no new products would ever emerge. In such an environment, people would struggle to stay alive.
Once an entrepreneur successfully introduces a product and makes a profit, he attracts competition. Notice that what gives rise to the competition is that consumers have endorsed the new product. Now the producers of older products must come with new ideas and new products to catch the attention of consumers.
The popular view that a producer that dominates a market could exploit his position by raising the price above the truly competitive level is erroneous.
The goal of every business is to make profits. This, however, cannot be achieved without offering consumers a suitable price.
It is in the interest of every businessman to secure a price where the quantity that is produced can be sold at a profit.
In setting this price the producer-entrepreneur will have to consider how much money consumers are likely to spend on the product. He will have to consider the prices of various competitive products. He will also have to consider his production costs.
Any attempt on behalf of the alleged dominant producer to disregard these facts will cause him to suffer losses.
Further to this, how can government officials establish whether the price of a product charged by a dominant producer is above the so-called competitive price level? How can they know what the competitive price is supposed to be?
If government officials attempt to enforce a lower price this price could wipe out the incentive to produce the product.
So rather than improving consumers’ well-being, government policies will only make things much worse. (On this, no mathematical methods, no matter how sophisticated, could tell us what the competitive price level is. Those who hold that game theories could do the trick are on the wrong path.)
Again, contrary to the perfect competition model, what gives rise to a greater competitive environment is not a large number of participants in a particular market but rather a large variety of competitive products. Government policies, in the spirit of the perfect competition model, however, are destroying product differentiation and therefore competition.
Products are Heterogeneous
The whole idea that various suppliers can offer a homogeneous product is not tenable. For if this was the case why would a buyer prefer one seller to another? (The whole idea to enforce product homogeneity in order to emulate the perfect competition model will lead to no competition at all.)
Since product differentiation is what free market competition is all about, it means that every supplier of a product has 100 percent control as far as the product is concerned. In other words, he is a monopolist.
What gives rise to product differentiation is that every entrepreneur has different ideas and talents. This difference in ideas and talents is manifested in the way the product is made, the way it is packaged, the place in which it is sold, the way it is offered to the client, etc.
For instance, a hamburger that is sold in a beautiful restaurant is a different product from a hamburger sold in a takeaway shop. So if the owner of a restaurant gains dominance in the sales of hamburgers should he then be restrained for this? Should he then alter his mode of operation and convert his restaurant into a takeaway shop in order to comply with the perfect competition model?
All that has happened here is that consumers have expressed a greater preference to dine in the restaurant rather than buying from the takeaway shop. So what is wrong with this?
Let us now assume that consumers have completely abandoned takeaway shops and buying hamburgers only from the restaurant, does this mean that the government must step in and intervene?
The whole issue of a harmful monopoly has no relevancy in the free-market environment. A harmful monopolist is likely to emerge when the government, by means of licenses, restricts the variety of products in a particular market. (The government bureaucrats decide what products should be supplied in the market.)
By imposing restrictions and thus limiting the variety of goods and services offered to consumers, government curtails consumers' choices thereby lowering their well-being.
Summary and conclusion
We suggest that the whole idea of government regulating large firms in order to promote competition and defend people’s well-being is a fallacy. If anything, such intervention only stifles market competition and lowers living standards. Alfred Nobel’s goal was to reward scientists whose inventions and discoveries bettered people’s lives and well-being. However, enhancing government controls of markets runs contrary to the spirit of Nobel.