Book Beat January 20 2001 (2)
If the Microsoft antitrust case has variously enraged, delighted and perplexed most of us, then it is probably not surprising to learn this bizarre pageant has itself become a highly contested industry. The issue is, of course, whether in the real world it makes any sense at all to prosecute an extraordinarily successful business for being superior to its competition.
In their book Winners, Losers & Microsoft, Stan J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis argue that everyone seems to have forgotten that life is hard. They further contend that despite the hype of the Microsoft case, there remain fundamental economic principles governing the relationship between manufacturers and consumers, which limit and empower both sides of a transaction. In this connection, their deconstruction of a phenomenon called “path dependence” is merely a return to the old-fashioned Emersonian dictum: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Thus, if Microsoft’s mousetrap is better than Netscape’s, and if Microsoft orchestrates its marketing so that its mousetraps are not only better but more readily available and, moreover, if it effectively cripples Netscape’s ability to market its own mousetrap, then, as long as consumers are killing more mice faster, Microsoft wins.
The decisive critique of antitrust legislation claims that laws prohibiting monopolistic practices merely prolong the artificial lives of firms that will not or cannot produce more innovative services while they penalize other firms that do what business presumably is supposed to do, make products that make money. Put simply, antitrust laws reward, with government protection, lazy indolent companies that whine about the unfairness of the world, while crushing, with government regulation, those companies that hungrily, aggressively, creatively attempt to outmaneuver and annihilate their competitors. The critique claims, finally, that such federal intervention results in distorted markets, expensive litigation and, in limiting free enterprise, assails the idea of liberty in its most basic sense.
Liebowitz and Margolis clearly know the relevant literature and have a great capacity for critical synthesis. It is oddly appropriate, at this strange moment in our culture in the century, that the rapidly evolving, carnivalesque milieu of high technology has become the environment in which the entire culture is prepared to rethink 2,000 years (if one dates from Christ, though Aristotle might be better) of moral propriety so that it is not finally whether one wins or loses, but how one bundles the browser.