The traditional case for competition and private enterprise does not assume that it produces perfect outcomes. Rather, the case is that the outcomes from competition are generally good, and certainly much better than those in a government- dominated economy, or in any other alternative ever devised. This is worth bearing in mind as we consider the topic for this week: business and corruption.
Posner gives many examples of unethical and illegal behavior by businessmen in recent years. These and other examples are certainly not great advertising for private enterprise, but as he indicates, this is not proof that such behavior has increased over time. Much more important, it is not proof that unethical behavior is more common in business than in say government or universities. After all, to take just one example, four former governors of our own state of Illinois were sent to prison, and one is currently doing extensive time in prison. for widespread corrupt practices.
Posner also argues that inefficiencies and unethical behavior in business are magnified by competition, at least by the intense competition among business in the United States. I very much disagree with this claim since there is no convincing evidence or theory indicating that corruption and inefficiencies are greater when businesses compete intensely. Competition helps discipline business behavior by giving consumers alternatives when they believe they are harmed by unethical business behavior. For their part, companies usually try to get repeat business and keep the loyalty of their customers by offering dependable goods and service. Monopolies need not worry much about consumer loyalty since their customers have limited alternatives.
To be sure, I would not claim that competition always works in this way, or that private and public monopolies are always inefficient. Sometimes, as Posner indicates, consumers are fooled by the “small print” in contracts they sign, or they choose products that are more harmful than they anticipated. Sometimes too, businesses engage in unethical practices because their competitors are profiting from these practices. But many examples illustrate that, overall, competition surely helps consumers.
The postal system was a lethargic, rigid, surly organization dominated by its unionized workers while it had a (government-enforced) monopoly of regular mail delivery. Competition from FedEx, UPS, and the Internet has greatly improved delivery of information and goods, and has even made the postal system a little more efficient and a little nicer. Microsoft used its monopoly power to extract surplus from consumers of Office and the Internet that it dominated until faced with extensive competition from Google, Apps, Facebook, and other ways to communicate and use the Internet. No one who has dealt with local government-created private monopolies like Comcast will extol the virtues of not having competitors to turn to for better services.
To take an international example, perhaps 40% or more of China’s manufacturing employment is in state-run enterprises often with real monopoly power. Private companies that usually face considerable domestic and international competition dominate the rest of manufacturing, agriculture, and most services. There is very widespread agreement that the private sector, not public enterprises, has produced the dynamism that has driven the Chinese economy forward. And when commentators speak about corruption in China they are usually referring to local and central governments, and the regulators appointed by these governments.
Nothing in my discussion, however, should be taken to imply that competitive private sectors are always self-regulating. Economists were already arguing in the middle of the 19th century that the financial sector needed regulation and a government lender of last resort. Consumers would have difficulty determining the safety of new drugs without regulations that forced extensive clinical trials (but the FDA also has regulations that are highly counterproductive). I can give other examples where regulations are beneficial, but my main claim is that competition usually helps consumers whether in software, groceries, or education. Competitive private enterprises, not governments or regulators, have led the way in helping countries progress and reduce the incidence of terrible poverty.