Lina Khan was an associate professor at Columbia Law, working remotely from Texas, when she found out that President Joe Biden wanted her on the Federal Trade Commission. She was 32, just a handful of years out of law school, and the prospect of being one of five commissioners on the panel was a coup. Then the record skipped. At some point after her confirmation hearing, Khan says, she was “pretty startled” to learn that the administration would tap her to chair the commission—a century-old agency with 1,100 employees, a $384 million budget, and, she’d argue, a set of priorities that went disastrously astray some 40 years ago.
“I think it’s fair to say that my tenure here represents change in a whole host of dimensions,” Khan told me. “And I think change can be hard.” Dressed in a dark-blue blazer, she was sitting in her office at FTC headquarters in Washington, a temporary space that overlooks a 12-foot statue of a musclebound behemoth restraining a raging stallion. Man Controlling Trade, it’s called. Khan, who is seven years younger than the certified D.C. wunderkind Pete Buttigieg, is now indisputably the most powerful figure in the anti-monopoly vanguard. She gives a clarifying voice to the idea that superconcentrated corporate power is a threat to ordinary Americans—not just to our economic well-being but to our freedoms.
It’s a throwback to the 1920s Progressive-era notion that a free people need fair markets. When we spoke in mid-October for a tightly scheduled 29 minutes and 37 seconds, Khan was at her most animated discussing those moments when Americans “lack choice and lack power” in nearly any act of commerce. “The chicken farmer that is subject to the whims of the massive chicken processor is going to face analogous contract terms to the author that is subject to a major bookseller,” she said. “The worker at the whims of his boss, and who is bound by a non-compete agreement so he can’t quit and go next door; or the small-business franchisee that’s at the whims of the big franchiser; or even the consumer that wants to switch internet providers, but there’s no other service in their neighborhood”—to Khan, these are all symptoms of markets that have been conquered by oligarchs.
Khan’s central argument is that none of this is inevitable; rather, it’s the product of legal and policy choices made since the Reagan era. By seeking to rewind those choices, she has made enemies out of all the companies that have gained the most from the present system—which is to say, the most formidable corporations in America, including Facebook, Alphabet, and Amazon. “This is a David-and-Goliath story,” says Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Open Markets Institute, who hired Khan for her first job in the field. “And she’s the perfect David.”
IN 1903, THEODORE ROOSEVELT created the Bureau of Corporations to ward off monopolies; a little more than a decade later, Woodrow Wilson signed its successor agency, the FTC, into existence as part of a reform push inspired by the breakup of Standard Oil. The commission played an essential role in keeping corporate power in check for decades. Then, in 1978, the Yale Law professor Robert Bork wrote The Antitrust Paradox. The book, to simplify a bit, argued that companies could get as big as they liked as long as people paid low prices—part of a standard that came to be known as “consumer welfare.” It redefined the field, and courts endorsed Bork’s views as settled law for decades.
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