Price-fixing Rabbis: Is Antitrust Made for this Problem?

Barak has single-handedly provoked a national dialogue over an interesting and important issue about the relationship between antitrust law and religious organizations.  This is scholarly entrepreneurship at its best, so kudos to Barak.  Alas, I’ll have to part company with his position.  Not having the benefit of his expertise on the specifics of  rabbinical hiring, I’ll make more general comments about antitrust and the regulation of religious enterprises.

Modern antitrust law is justified on the assumption that rivalry between firms for the design, manufacture, and distribution of goods and services promotes efficiency by stimulating innovation and lowering prices.  This assumption is true enough as to commercial undertakings that it serves as a useful market ordering principle.  I’m far less confident that the rivalry assumption holds as a general matter as to religious organizations.

On the one hand, competition clearly can be a spur to the performance of religious organizations.  The best empirical evidence for this is the widely different paths of the state-established churches of Europe and the disestablished churches in the United States.  In Europe, the Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic churches have held near-monopoly positions for hundreds of years.  Funded by the state and granted all manner of valuable privileges and subsidies, they are economically protected—and in north Europe at least almost completely irrelevant.  Secure in its position and unmotivated by competition, the established church had little reason to sharpen its message, adapt to new social realities, or reach new audiences.  By contrast, religion has flourished in America precisely because of its disestablishment.   America has been the most fertile land for development of new religious sects, doctrines, and expressions, in large part because no group could succeed unless it presented an appealing message and worked hard to attract and retain members.  Europeans who often look with a mixture of contempt, amusement, horror, and incredulity at the deep religiosity of the United States would do well to consult economic principles to understand the differences.

On the other hand, it’s far from clear that rivalry between religions is as fundamental to the well-being of society as is rivalry between commercial firms.  I was recently at a conference where someone asked whether the antitrust laws should apply to the Balamand agreement between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church, which ended official Roman Catholic proselytization of the Eastern Orthodox.  The audience laughed.  Given that much of history’s nastiest episodes have come about because of religious rivalry, gestures toward religious conciliation and ecumenicalism are a relief—even if they happen to take the form of market division.

And that’s as to what the antitrust crowd would call “interbrand competition,” rivalry between different religious sects.  If the value of overt rivalry between religious sects is questionable, so much more so for rivalry within religious sects—what the antitrust crowd would call “intrabrand competition.”  Speaking from within just my own tradition—the Christian one—a good bit of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the churches scattered across the Roman world was about the need for unity, the need to avoid internecine strife, the need to stop competing and to be “unified in Christ.”  Since the church was said to be “one body,” the Apostle would likely have found it surprising that social welfare would be maximized if the churches at Ephesus and Corinth competed with each other to attract Timothy as their next pastor.  To put the point rather awkwardly in the language of modern antitrust, in Christian theology the church is a single firm, and a single firm is juridically incapable of conspiring with itself (as the Supreme Court held in Copperweld).  I can’t speak universally, but my sense is that most religions have a similar commitment to internal unity and harmony.

The fundamental problem with applying antitrust law to the non-commercial activities of churches, synagogues, or other religious organizations is that it forces them to adhere to a set of normative commitments that may not be their own.  An ecclesiastical organization may think it’s far more important to ensure order, theological continuity, adherence to tradition, or harmony in allocating its clergy than to secure the optimal short-run deployment of its human capital resources (i.e., its clergy) given the preferences of local congregations.  I don’t know whether or not it is.  But if I were a judge making the decision in an antitrust case, I would be pretty sure that the question wasn’t my call.  Congregational style organizations exist precisely because their members want control over these kinds of decisions; synodic or hierarchical organizations exist precisely because they value order, theological continuity, adherence to tradition, and harmony over local autonomy.

Thus far, my arguments have been purely normative.  Whether modern U.S. antitrust law applies in the rabbinical case Barak has raised is a different question.  I seriously doubt that the framers of the Sherman Act would have contemplated the statute’s application to churches and synagogues.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that religious organizations are immune from the antitrust laws when they sell goods or services.  If kosher slaughterhouses collude to raise prices for meat, they surely don’t get antitrust immunity just because the collusion is sanctioned by a rabbinical council.  The Supreme Court has held that the antitrust laws apply when “proximate relation to lucre” appears.  Producing and selling food is a commercial transaction; hiring rabbis or pastors is not.  We hope that the core motivation of the transaction has no approximation to lucre whatsoever—that each party to the transaction is maximizing things other than money.  To force the parties to follow the normative goals of the antitrust laws when it comes to ordering their religious activities fails to  respect to the very reasons that churches and synagogues exist.

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One response to “Price-fixing Rabbis: Is Antitrust Made for this Problem?

  1. David Frydrychowski

    The commentators appear to have defined two different markets. This post (with St. Lawrence) identifies the ecclesial market as the competition for members. The prior post identified the market as the competition for religious leaders. Sans an agreement on market definition, it’s tough to have a profitable antitrust debate.

    I’m wary of the thesis of this article, though. ‘Ut unam sint’ can’t operate as a blanket exemption from Antitrust scrutiny. One needs to distinguish the forms of civil law from the religious understanding. In the religious understanding, all Christian churches are quite literally within the same ‘corporation’ – that of Christ. In the civil law, varying assemblies petition the state within which they are located, asking to be recognized as a corporations in order to transact business in that state.

    The holding in Copperweld was that a corporation exists for furthering certain purposes, and that therefore a wholly-owned subsidiary cannot conspire with the parent corporation. Their purposes – which is to say, their existences – are identical.

    Here, the corporation is organized under the civil law. The purposes of the corporation are therefore the civil ones. (Buying bread, fixing the air conditioning, etc.) Identity of purpose with the larger corporation is therefore, as Wallace Shawn might say, simply inconceivable. And even absent that argument, recognize that Copperweld has been limited to wholly-owned subsidiaries, and no reasonable person would argue that one denomination, parish, or faith is completely controlled by another. The true Copperweld analogy would be to say that a parish is incapable of conspiring with the Holy See – which would still encounter the civil/canon distinction discussed above.

    To sum up, I’d say that the appropriate shield should be 1A, not intra-enterprise.

    (Academic thought, not legal advice. Don’t rely.)

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