The evils of monopoly and other excessive market power have been recognised for millennia.
- c. 2100 BC - Hammurabi, King of Babylon, promulgated a code referring to monopolistic prices.
- 347 BC - Aristotle used the word 'monopoly' in his Politics books, in a discussion of people who cornered the market by buying up all the oil presses and all iron, selling later for a high profit at a time of urgent demand.
- c. 160 BC - Cato the Elder referred to associations between rival companies so as to establish monopolistic prices.
- c. 79 AD - Plinius the Elder recorded frequent complaints of citizens against the extractions of monopoly.
- 483 AD Emperor Zeno prohibited all monopolies whether created by Imperial decree or by private action, combinations and price agreements.
Later regulations protected Roman citizens against being sold under-weight goods. The photo above right is of Pompeii's Mensa Ponderaria:- the table with the town's official measures which guarantee the citizen against fraud by shopkeepers and merchants.
The photo on the left is of a marble block from Laodicea in Turkey, dating back to AD114. It is inscribed with the local water law which contains strict measures regarding the use of water which had to be channeled from the nearby Karci Mountain. There were heavy penalties, ranging from the equivalent of £10-30,000 in today's money, for those who polluted the water, or damaged the supply infrastructure. And whistle blowers were awarded 1/8th of the penalty.
Nearer home Roman procurators were responsible for drawing up regulations for the safety of their British coal and metal mines.
Many years later, in 1310, SMEs in London were no doubt incandescent with rage when 'health and safety' zealots succeeded in promoting legislation under which tailors and pelterers were forbidden from scouring furs in the main street on penalty of no less than imprisonment. A 1357 law then established laws against leaving dung, crates and empty barrels outside the doors of London houses, and a 1371 law forbade the slaughtering of all large beasts within the city.
Rulers and governments have frequently granted monopolies in order to reward loyal subjects at no cost to themselves and/or (by selling the monopoly) to enrich themselves without being seen to impose taxation. Imperial monopolies are mentioned above:-
- Queen Elizabeth I granted a large number of monopolies covering many household items, eventually causing great concern:
- Sir Walter Raleigh held monopolies for tin and playing cards
- 'Send for [the monopolists], send them to the Tower, there to remain until they have ... made some part of restitution to some of the poorest that have been oppressed by them' - John Davies, Speaker of the Irish Parliament
- The Thatcher government privatised several monopolies, receiving large sales proceeds as a result. But the simultaneous creation of strong utility regulators ensured that competition was eventually introduced where this was possible, and prices were controlled where competition was ineffective.
- Russian Yeltsin-era privatisations created quite a number of phenomenally rich oligarchs at the expense of the wider Russian people.
Developments such as company law (the 1844 Joint Stock Companies Act and the 1855 Limited Liability Act) gave protection to company owners against their company's creditors, and patent law did much the same in the field of intellectual property.
Anti-trust legislation (i.e. competition law) was introduced in the United States via the 1890 Sherman Act which attempted to outlaw the restriction of competition by large companies, who co-operated with rivals to fix outputs, prices and market shares, initially through pools and later through trusts. Competition law arrived in Europe in the inter-war years, with Germany enacting its first anti-cartel law in 1923 and Sweden and Norway adopting similar laws in 1925 and 1926 respectively. However, the Great Depression caused competition law to fall into disuse and it was only revived following the Second World War when the United Kingdom and Germany, following pressure from the United States, became the first European countries to adopt fully fledged competition laws.
There is a good summary of the history of competition law in Wikipedia.
There was also much social protection legislation in the 1800s - see box below.
There has more recently been a flurry of regulation providing employment rights, including protection against unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, unreasonably low pay and excessive working time.
Please do not hesitate to send me further historical snippets or images which might be added to this page.