The Myth of Natural Monopoly

May 21, 2011 | 00:00

The Myth of Natural Monopoly

The very term "public utility" … is an absurd one. Every good is useful "to the public," and almost every good … may be considered "necessary." Any designation of a few industries as "public utilities" is completely arbitrary and unjustified. — Murray Rothbard, Power and Market
Most so-called public utilities have been granted governmental franchise monopolies because they are thought to be "natural monopolies." Put simply, a natural monopoly is said to occur when production technology, such as relatively high fixed costs, causes long-run average total costs to decline as output expands. In such industries, the theory goes, a single producer will eventually be able to produce at a lower cost than any two other producers, thereby creating a "natural" monopoly. Higher prices will result if more than one producer supplies the market.

Furthermore, competition is said to cause consumer inconvenience because of the construction of duplicative facilities, e.g., digging up the streets to put in dual gas or water lines. Avoiding such inconveniences is another reason offered for government franchise monopolies for industries with declining long-run average total costs.

It is a myth that natural-monopoly theory was developed first by economists, and then used by legislators to "justify" franchise monopolies. The truth is that the monopolies were created decades before the theory was formalized by intervention-minded economists, who then used the theory as an ex post rationale for government intervention. At the time when the first government franchise monopolies were being granted, the large majority of economists understood that large-scale, capital-intensive production did not lead to monopoly, but was an absolutely desirable aspect of the competitive process.

The word "process" is important here. If competition is viewed as a dynamic, rivalrous process of entrepreneurship, then the fact that a single producer happens to have the lowest costs at any one point in time is of little or no consequence. The enduring forces of competition — including potential competition — will render free-market monopoly an impossibility.

The theory of natural monopoly is also ahistorical. There is no evidence of the "natural-monopoly" story ever having been carried out — of one producer achieving lower long-run average total costs than everyone else in the industry and thereby establishing a permanent monopoly. As discussed below, in many of the so-called public-utility industries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were often literally dozens of competitors.

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