Capitalism is a free market system that is supposed to promote competition. In capitalist theory, competition leads to innovation and more affordable prices for consumers. Without competition, a monopoly, oligopoly or cartel may develop.

A monopoly occurs when one firm supplies the total output in the market; the firm can therefore limit output and raise prices because it has no fear of competition. If several companies get together to control output and prices, it is known as an oligopoly or a cartel.

An article entitled Monopoly and Competition in Twenty-first Century-Capitalism explains:

“The economic defense of capitalism is premised on the ubiquity of competitive markets, providing for the rational allocation of scarce resources and justifying the existing distribution of incomes. The political defense of capitalism is that economic power is diffuse and cannot be aggregated in such a manner as to have undue influence over the democratic state. Both of these core claims for capitalism are demolished if monopoly, rather than competition, is the rule.”

I would like to make the argument that, in the current economy, capitalism is not promoting the ubiquity of competitive markets; rather it is quickly moving toward consolidation and oligopolies. As well, economic and political power is not diffuse; it is concentrated in the hands of the few, giving them great influence over the democratic state. The growing influence of oligopolies is a primary driver of inequality and redistribution of income. Consolidation and oligopolies have become the norm and are a dangerous threat to the economy.

This formation of monopolies and oligopolies also occurred in the Gilded Age, when the robber barons controlled entire industries, including oil, railroads, steel and the telegraph. The consolidation did not stop until President Theodore Roosevelt broke up the monopolies using antitrust legislation.

Well, a second Gilded Age is happening all over again, and there are many examples, as follows:

Modern-day Oligopolies

  1. Airlines

    In the 1970s, approximately 30 airlines operated in the U.S. Some of them had been around a long time, such as Pan American, Trans World Airlines, Eastern, National, and Braniff, to name just a few. Through mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies, the number was reduced to six airline companies. In the last decade, with United merging with Continental, and American swallowing U.S. Air, there are now only four major carriers in the U.S.—United, Delta, American and Southwest (and a few minor players).

    American and United used bankruptcy to squeeze every dollar they could out of their employees. Now all four of the major carriers are profitable, pay dividends, buy back their stock and are piling up profits. They now have an oligopoly, where they control enough routes that they can raise prices and charge huge fees. In some cases, this has allowed them to raise fares by as much as 65%.

  2. Banks

    As everybody now knows, the big banks also have been merging and consolidating. Though there are more than 7,000 banks in the U.S., only 19 of them control 60.6% of the total assets.

    With the repeal of Glass-Steagle Act, these big banks have refocused their business on proprietary trading—essentially gambling with depositor’s money. Today, the big banks contribute more money to proprietary trading then they do to loans to consumers and businesses. The irony is that the big banks are still too big to fail, and they can rely on the fact that nobody will go to jail and the government will always have to bail them out.

    After the big banks created toxic mortgages and then securitized them to be sold all over the world, causing the start of the Great Recession, they got themselves into a financial position where the government had to loan them trillions of dollars to stay afloat. The amazing thing is that the government allowed them to use the money to broker and subsidize mergers such as Wells Fargo's takeover of Wachovia; JP Morgan Chase's acquisition of Washington Mutual; and Bear Sterns and Bank of America’s absorption of Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch, which accelerated consolidation and created the bank oligopoly we have today.

    The top four banks in the U.S. are J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, CitiBank and Wells Fargo. They are still too big to fail and in a position to do it all over again. Senator Sherrod Brown explains: "The four largest behemoths, now ranging from $1.4 trillion to $2.3 trillion in assets, are the result of 37 banks merging 33 times. In 1995, the six biggest U.S. banks had assets equal to 18% of GDP. Today, they hold assets of about 63% of GDP.”

  3. Search Engines

    The search engine business is dominated by Google, which, according to Forbes, owns 90% of the market in non-mobile search worldwide. By any definition, Google is a monopoly that purchased more then 100 companies to gain and retain market share.

  4. Media Companies

    In 1983, 50 companies controlled the vast majority of news media including newspaper, magazines, radio and TV stations, books, movies, videos, and wire services. Consolidation reduced the original number to 24 companies by 1992 and to six companies by 2000. Today, five corporations—Time Warner, Disney, News Corp., Bertelsmann (of Germany) and Viacom control the majority of the U.S. media industry. Cable providers like Time Warner and Comcast have raised the price of their subscriptions at close to three times the rate of inflation since 2008. American cable customers pay twice as much for a cable subscription then European customers.

  5. Hospitals

    In the last 30 years, hospitals in most cities have been merging and consolidating in local markets. Though not national examples, they have formed local monopolies in cities, often leaving only a few hospitals to choose from. These mini-monopolies are also able boost the prices for most of their services. Hospital pricing is the leading cause of healthcare cost increases, and we've seen prices of 50% to 100% on services from blood tests to chemotherapy. This is a major reason that health care costs have risen so high.