Questo articolo è stato pubblicato il 30 luglio 2010 alle ore 09:13.
WASHINGTON, DC – Just over a hundred years ago, the United States led the world in terms of rethinking how big business worked – and when the power of such firms should be constrained. In retrospect, the breakthrough legislation – not just for the US, but also internationally – was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
The Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill, which is about to pass the US Senate, does something similar – and long overdue – for banking.
Prior to 1890, big business was widely regarded as more efficient and generally more modern than small business. Most people saw the consolidation of smaller firms into fewer, large firms as a stabilizing development that rewarded success and allowed for further productive investment. The creation of America as a major economic power, after all, was made possible by giant steel mills, integrated railway systems, and the mobilization of enormous energy reserves through such ventures as Standard Oil.
But ever-bigger business also had a profound social impact, and here the ledger entries were not all in the positive column. The people who ran big business were often unscrupulous, and in some cases used their dominant market position to drive out their competitors – enabling the surviving firms subsequently to restrict supply and raise prices.
There was dominance, to be sure, in the local and regional markets of mid-nineteenth-century America, but nothing like what developed in the 50 years that followed. Big business brought major productivity improvements, but it also increased the power of private companies to act in ways that were injurious to the broader marketplace – and to society.
The Sherman Act itself did not change this situation overnight, but, once President Theodore Roosevelt decided to take up the cause, it became a powerful tool that could be used to break up industrial and transportation monopolies. By doing so, Roosevelt and those who followed in his footsteps shifted the consensus.
Roosevelt’s first case, against Northern Securities in 1902, was immensely controversial. But the break-up, a decade later, of Standard Oil – perhaps the most powerful company in the history of the world to that date – was seen by mainstream opinion as completely reasonable. And the break-up of Standard Oil took place in great American style: the company was split into more than 30 pieces, the shareholders did very well, and the Rockefeller family went on to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the American public.