Last week, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division issued a triumphant press release touting that 2006 recorded “the second highest level of criminal fines” in Division history. The Division is actually measuring the government’s 2006 fiscal year: From October 2005 through September 2006, the Division obtained criminal fines totaling $472,445,600, a 40% increase over the previous fiscal year. The Division also said that criminal prosecutions of individuals yielded a combined 5,383 days of jail time; and during the first three months of the current fiscal year, an additional 9,135 days of jail time have been imposed.
Thomas Barnett, the head of the Antitrust Division, said more fines for “cartels” and prison sentences for “price fixing” executives created substantial economic benefits:
“Sound enforcement of the antitrust laws ensures that illegal conduct is stopped, procompetitive transactions can proceed, and businesses are able to engage in vigorous competition resulting in lower prices, better quality and more choices for consumers.”
There’s no empirical evidence that any of this is true. Indeed, the DOJ is not legally required to demonstrate the economic effects of antitrust policy. Since price fixing is treated as a “per se” antitrust violation by the courts, it’s legally unnecessary to address such matters. Nevertheless, the Division insists that criminal enforcement improves consumer welfare. That doesn’t make sense if you think about it.