Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 8: COMPETITION AND MONOPOLY - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
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CHAPTER 8: COMPETITION AND MONOPOLY - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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COMPETITION AND MONOPOLY
§ 1. Competition defined. § 2. Naturalness of competition. § 3. Conflicting interests of competition. § 4. Nature of monopoly. § 5. Monopoly not merely scarcity. § 6. Monopoly not merely superior economic power. § 7. Partial competition coexisting with monopoly. § 8. Absolute and relative monopoly. § 9. Motives and germs of monopoly. § 10. Types of monopoly-price: receipts vs. profits. § 11. Uniform monopoly-price. § 12. Uniform monopoly-price: inelastic demand. § 13. Uniform monopoly-price: elastic demand. § 14. Discriminatory monopolistic price.
§ 1. Competition defined. The word competition is frequently heard and with various implications. Literally it means “seeking-together,” with the suggestion of rivalry, of mutual exclusion of the seekers. As applied to trade, competition means the attempt of two or more persons to get the same thing, each being guided by his own valuation and not restrained by any outside force. Thus there is an element of competition in the simplest case of barter, for whatever ratio is more favorable to one is less favorable to the other party and gives to one what the other fails to get. But the idea of competition more frequently is applied to a group of traders buying or selling the same class of goods. All the members of the group are thought of as being on one side of the trade, either the buyer’s or the seller’s side. If in such case there is on the other side but one trader (or some agreement or limitation of competition) there is one-sided competition. When there are two groups of competitive traders, one of buyers and one of sellers, there is two-sided competition.
§ 2. Naturalness of competition. Competition has been implied in previous chapters in such words as rivalry, emulation, bidding, least eager buyer, or seller, price-adjustment, etc. Competition is spoken of as a force raising or lowering prices, as a motive acting upon the traders, etc., but competition is not a different force, or a separate motive, apart from the desires of the traders. (Some minor exceptions occur where the motive is the mere wish to outdo for the fun of the game.) Rather competition ordinarily is but an expression for the situation where each trader is exercising his choice in a market without restraint from others of the same group. For unless there is introduced a new personal factor of collusion, conspiracy, agreement not to bid against each other, the market price will be competitive, and a condition of competition exist. Such agreements, being dependent always on the good faith of the parties, often also on secrecy, and being provocative of jealousies in the division of the gains, are dependent on personal factors, and create a more artificial state of price than is found in competitive price, which has a more impersonal character. Hence competitive prices have, since the days of Adam Smith, commonly been spoken of as “natural” prices. The word natural must, however, be used with caution. It can not be said that the choice any trader makes in entering into an agreement not to compete, when he sees that he can gain by so doing is, in one sense, any less “natural” than his choice of the thing when he competes. The choice might be called natural but the situation and the price resulting are not so, viewed from our present standpoint; they are artificial in the sense that they result from an agreement to abstain from the competition which otherwise would take place.
§ 3. Conflicting interests of competition. The buyers have the common interest of low prices; the sellers, the common interest of high prices; and buyers’ interest as a group is opposed to sellers’ interest as a group. The competition of interests is thus in two dimensions, but competition is applied particularly to the rivalry within the group on either side.
If there are more would-be buyers than sellers (or vice versa), some on the buyers’ side will be forced out by the competition of the others; and even if the numbers are equal in each group, and all succeed in trading, it will probably be at a ratio altered by the competition. The presence of competing buyers, having different valuations, raises the price at which some sellers will be able to sell and, vice versa, the presence of competing sellers lowers the price which some buyers must pay.
It would always be to the advantage of the traders on one side (say the sellers) if some of their number would cease to produce, or would produce less, as this would raise the price that those remaining could get. Sometimes the rise of price through decreased production is so great that the total price of the whole supply is greater than the total price of the larger supply (and vice versa, in case of increased production). This is the paradox of value applying to a whole market and to the buyers’ curve of composite demand, rather than to the individual and to his valuation curve. For example, the total amount of money received by all the farmers of a country for a large crop of corn, wheat, tobacco, cotton, may be less than what would be received for a smaller crop. Abundance is good for the purchasers of farm products, but not always advantageous to the farmers as a class. This appears in the comparison of amount produced, price per unit, and value of the total crop, in successive years; for example, of cotton in the United States. This phenomenon appears frequently in the case of many kinds of products. To the sellers it is very disagreeable to get less for a large crop than for a smaller one, and it constitutes a motive for attempting to control the prices to their own advantage whenever they can.
§ 4. Nature of monopoly.Monopoly is derived from the Greek roots, monos (sole, only) and polein (to sell), whence the abstract noun monopolia (exclusive power, or condition of sale). It originally meant the exclusive legal right of selling some article in some market. The typical monopoly of later medieval and early modern times was the power (or person or company granting it) granted in a patent by the sovereign. The name patent survives as the special name for the monopoly granted by law to an inventor. Patents and franchises of public corporations, such as street railways, etc., are the main modern forms of legal monopoly. The idea was extended in one direction to include the right to deal in some article, and has been extended in modern usage in another direction to mean economic power to become (within limits) the sole seller (or buyer) of an article, whether this power is derived from law or springs from the economic conditions. It is applied also to the group of persons, or to the business company or corporation, which has this power. Monopoly, therefore, is essentially opposed to competition, but only within a group on one side of the market, not in the market as a whole. It suggests always the limitation or absence of that rivalry within the group of buyers, or of sellers, respectively, which constitutes competition.
§ 5. Monopoly not merely scarcity. Monopoly should not be used as synonymous with scarcity. Scarcity is the essential condition of all value. The simplest things—bricks, sand, the commonest unskilled labor—would have no value were there not a degree of scarcity. “Monopoly,” whatever else it means, always conveys the idea of some exceptional kind of scarcity due in part to some source or cause not ordinarily present. Many economic writers, for example, have called land-ownership monopoly, saying that land being the work of nature cannot be increased by men, and therefore must always be scarce. Even if it were true that in the economic sense land could not be produced by man, there still would be confusion here between a general class of goods and a special thing. The fact that a particular field cannot be duplicated does not make a monopoly of land as a whole. Nothing can be duplicated exactly, but units very like can be bought of others that will do just as well. It leads to absurdity to use the word monopoly with reference to land-ownership indiscriminately. Neither the humble owner of forty acres of land worth four hundred dollars, nor the owner of a village lot worth a hundred dollars, has any monopoly power. Neither mere scarcity nor the limitation of natural stores should be called monopoly when ownership of like goods is scattered and combination between owners does not exist.
§ 6. Monopoly is not merely superior economic power. Neither does the ability of superior material agents and of skilled workers to secure higher returns than do poor ones constitute monopoly. The free competition assumed in abstract discussions of value does not mean equal capacity or efficiency, but the legal freedom and the personal willingness to move a productive agent into the highest industrial place it is capable of holding. The rocky field does not compete with the fertile one in the sense that it can yield the same uses. The field fit only for potatoes does not compete with those rare and favored localities that can raise the best wines. The gardener earning two dollars a day does not compete with the skilled physician with an income of twenty thousand a year, for he has not the economic capacity to do so; but he is free to compete (as is the owner of the rocky field) unless law, caste, class legislation, social prejudice, or some other objective factor forbids. Anything, however, that prevents the labor or wealth of buyers or sellers from applications for which they are fitted, defeats free competition. To use the term monopoly of any and every limitation of economic ability is to extend it to every case of value. To use it of the high wages of skilled workmen, where no union to suppress competition exists among them, is to make it a colorless synonym of scarcity. It should be confined to a narrower and more exclusive use. Some special kinds of limitation should be connected with the idea of monopoly. The limitation connected with monopoly is not that of economic capacity but that of ownership and control.
§ 7. Partial competition coexisting with monopoly. The limitation of competition in the case of monopoly is usually in some part merely, or on one side of the market. It is true that a condition of double or two-sided monopoly may exist; indeed, this is always the case in isolated trade, but the typical and important problems of monopoly, in advanced industrial conditions, are those where competition is removed from the traders on one side while it continues to press with full force upon the traders on the other side.1
Monopoly-price, therefore, cannot mean one which is determined without the operation of competitive motives, but one which is determined through their more or less partial and one-sided operation.2 When monopoly exists the market is not a full or complete one, but competition may still be very active in many respects.
§ 8. Absolute and relative monopoly. An absolute monopoly might be said to exist whenever the entire group of traders having control of some kind of goods, on one side of the market, is united to act as one person. This situation rarely occurs and even when occurring is modified by the power of substitution of goods somewhat similar. Monopoly, therefore, is nearly always relative rather than absolute. Monopoly and competition both may better be thought of as qualities more or less marking the conduct of traders on either side of a market than as absolute concrete situations. The element of competition is always present in large measure either on both sides of the market or on one side. Monopoly, however, is more likely to occur within the smaller group of traders, while competition is more likely to continue within the larger group, and in varying degrees from the least to the greatest.
Wherever any agreement exists among bidders it makes their action lose, in so far, its competitive, and take on a monopolistic, character, tho this may be very slight and not socially harmful. Likewise the element of monopoly is present among small traders whenever there is but one trader on one side (the buying or the selling side) and he makes a more or less separate bargain, at different prices, with each of the traders on the other side of the trade, forcing each toward the upper limit of valuation.
§ 9. Motives and germs of monopoly. As competition is always forcing buyers to bid up, and sellers to bid down against the general interest of their groups, there is an ever-besetting motive for monopoly. If two or more of the traders on the same side of the market can get together and limit their mutual competition, they often may gain, tho at the corresponding loss of the other parties. Evidences of this practice appear throughout all the history of commerce.
The germs of monopoly are in any device whatever, that is used to keep any trader from competitively bidding in accordance with his individual interest as he sees it. A group of the most eager bidders at an auction sale may combine and pay the least eager buyers each something to keep them from bidding, and then buy up the whole supply for a trifle. Or all would-be buyers may secretly agree to let one or two do all the bidding and to divide the results. If, on the other hand, the auctioneer has confederates who pretend to buy the goods if the price is not as high as the auctioneer expects, a fictitious market price results, and buyers lose the chance that brings them to the auction, that of “picking up a bargain.” An auctioneer often conceals the fact that there is more than one of an article, and having sold it off, brings out a second or a third one of the same kind, thus keeping the buyers in ignorance of the supply and getting somewhere near the estimate of the most eager buyer in each case.3
§ 10. Types of monopoly-price: receipts vs. profits. These petty devices develop, in the case of larger markets and of many important articles of sale, into the systematic practice of manipulating prices artificially. The explanation of the motives and of the limits of monopolistic price-fixing would best be reserved in large part until a later stage of our study, where it can be considered in connection with enterprise. It is in the sale of the products of a business that the most important problems of monopoly are found. There the monopolist is seeking the highest net gain over a considerable period in the sale of a continuous output of goods. The cost per unit is the minimum seller’s valuation and the monopoly-price sought is that which in the long run yields the largest gain (the product of units of sales times margin of gain per unit). Let us here consider merely the case where the monopoly (seller or group of sellers) is seeking the maximum total price (not net gain) for a stock of goods which have no minimum seller’s valuation. Such is the classic example of monopoly in colonial trade related by Adam Smith: “In the spice islands the Dutch are said to burn all the spiceries which a fertile season produces beyond what they expect to dispose of in Europe with such a profit as they think sufficient.”4 This type of cases is of not infrequent occurrence. Such a case is presented whenever the unsold portion of a supply would go to waste, such as perishable goods after they have come to market (fruits, vegetables, etc.), such as vacant seats in an opera house, at athletic games, etc., where the expense of the whole performance has been incurred and will not be increased by more spectators. We may call this price which concerns the gross receipts from sales, crude monopoly-price. It is that which yields the monopolist (with complete control of supply) the maximum gross receipts.
This control of all the seats at a single entertainment is a very restricted kind of monopoly, and does not present a social problem. There is still intense competition among artists of all kinds to provide entertainments having the merits to attract spectators.
§ 11. Uniform monopoly-price. In all such cases the competitive price would be fixed solely by the buyers’ scale of valuation, as in an auction without reserve. If the supply of goods be large, approaching the saturation point of desires, whether there be one seller (without reserve valuation) or competing sellers, the price will tend toward the valuation of the marginal buyer, and in the extreme case may sink to zero. The only way sellers can prevent this is to reserve a part of the supply, even if it has to be burned up or thrown away (fish, fruit, etc.), or remains unused (as the empty seats in a theater). In the case shown (in Fig. 14 and the table) if there were 7 units for sale, the unit price would be 1, the total price 7, and each of the 7 sellers would get 1. But if the owners of these 7 units unite and withhold 3 units, the total receipts are 16, which divided equally, gives 2 units of price to each seller. It is a general truth, that monopoly power can be made effective to raise a uniform market-price above what it would be if the monopolists competed, only by artificially increasing scarcity, by limiting supply. Shown graphically, the maximum crude monopoly-price obtainable is always the largest rectangle that can be inscribed within the coördinate axes and the hypothetical demand-curve. (See above Chapter 4, Section 11, on the paradox of value.)
§ 12. Uniform monopoly-price, inelastic demand. With a more inelastic demand,5 where buyers’ demand increases very little with a rapid fall in price, the monopolist must restrict his offers more narrowly to attain a total price above the competitive. In Figure 15 the offer of 3 units would at the price 6 yield the maximum proceeds (18), and any supply below that would be tapping only the lower levels of valuation. If a few valuations are high, and the others fall very rapidly, the price can be raised very much more; as in Figure 15, if the demand curve were AEFG the monopoly-price would be 9. This is the type of demand for articles of great luxury, limited to the very rich.
§ 13. Uniform monopoly-price: elastic demand. The more elastic the demand the more nearly a monopolistic price approaches a competitive price with a given number of units of supply. In Figure 14 it appears that with any number of units up to 4, the monopolistic and the competitive market-prices would be the same, and any restriction would involve a loss to the monopolist. The motive for monopoly lies in the range of supply of 5 units and beyond. With a more elastic type of demand as in scale A-B (in Figure 16) where there is less difference in the valuations of the most urgent (or capable) and of the less urgent buyer, competitive and monopolistic market-prices are the same up to 7 units (7 × 4⅓ = 30⅓ total). With a still more elastic demand represented by a more flattened curve, as in C-D of Figure 16, the competitive and monopolistic price are the same up to 11 units (11 × 3⅓ = 36⅔ total) and either 10 or 11 units will yield the same total. Beyond that is the region of possible monopolistic price. Compound types of demand scales, made up of different levels of demand, would further strengthen or weaken the motive to limit supply. If the demand curve, after rapidly falling, flattens to a new broad field of demand, a lower price will yield a larger total than the previous monopoly-price. This is the type of non-essential goods which remain luxuries when price is high, but rapidly become looked upon as comforts and necessities when price falls.
§ 14. Discriminatory monopolistic price. It appears from the foregoing that while it is possible for sellers to gain by the fixing of a uniform monopoly-price under some conditions, under other cases it is not. The range of this possibility is, indeed, much narrower than would be anticipated before a study of the problem.6 But where a monopoly exists, why should it confine itself to a uniform price to all buyers? The very scrutiny of the differences in buyers’ valuations needed to fix a monopoly-price, suggests making differences in prices. This fact of practical experience presents the problem of discriminatory monopoly-price. It may often happen that the whole group of would-be buyers may be divided into subgroups, and a different price made for each (see Figure 17). This division may correspond with differences in locality (geographical), as in railroad rates to different places, different prices of petroleum to different cities or states, or different rates to domestic and to foreign shippers on a railroad, etc. Or it may correspond with social ranks, as can be done by making slight differences in quality, the best quality at a very high price for the rich, and the common grades at low prices to the masses. Or it may correspond with the power of different buyers to substitute other goods, or to resort to a different source of supply, the poor in such cases being made to pay more than the rich. Or the distinction may be made with reference to the individual differences in maximum valuations, only to be known by intimate personal knowledge or by an elaborate system of espionage. This is the extremest possible discrimination.7
USANCE AND RENT
[* ]In nine changes that occurred (as compared with the preceding year) production and prices moved in opposite directions eight times, and in the other case (in 1910) price rose but little the same year that production increased a little. No doubt cotton prices would have been on a lower level the last few years (1909-1912) but for two factors: (1) The increasing scale of general prices due to gold production, and (2) the increasing population and the corresponding need for more cotton.
[1 ]See above, sec. 3, on the conflicting interests of competition.
[2 ]This caution is necessary as the student will find frequently the assumption that a monopoly-price is not influenced by competition.
[3 ]See ch. 6, secs. 6-9.
[4 ]“Wealth of Nations,” Routledge ed., p. 487.
[5 ]Note that as demand means number of units demanded, at a price, an elastic demand means a large change of demand with a small change in price. This is represented by a flattened demand-curve; and vice versa an inelastic demand is represented by a steep demand-curve.
[6 ]It must not be forgotten that our study thus far is limited to crude monopoly-price. The problem is different when it is one of profits resulting from the excess of price over cost of production.
[7 ]Thus where the uniform monopoly-price is 4 per unit, yielding proceeds of 16, a group discrimination such as shown in Figure 17, at the left, might yield 23, and personal discrimination, as shown at the right, 28.