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Before “Break up Big Tech,” there was “Break up the Big Banks.” And before that, “Break up Walmart.” Oh yeah, lots of interest among a certain group of activists in breaking up the giant retailer. In 2006, for instance, Washington wonk Barry Lynn wrote in Harper’s about “The Case for Breaking Up Wal-Mart” and then again “The Case for Breaking Up Walmart” in 2013 for Foreign Policy.
More recently, Lynn has been a leading proponent of cracking down on the megaplatforms such as Google and Facebook, though perhaps not necessarily breaking them up into smaller companies. But let’s not forget about Walmart, a company Lynn once described as having such vast power that it actually “subverts the functioning of the free market.”
But how is Walmart doing these days? Does it face any competitive pressures? Well, yeah it does. It doesn’t take much searching to find stories about how Walmart is “under siege” from Amazon, and how with every passing year, it becomes “harder and harder for Walmart to compete with Amazon.”
Is it still an economic and competitive priority to break up Walmart? Or are we now onto breaking up Amazon? Life comes at you pretty fast. (Indeed, neither Lynn story even mentions Amazon.) Why should we be sure the current platform firms will ever and always be dominant? And shouldn’t that possibility factor into antitrust and regulatory issues? As Andreessen Horowitz analyst Benedict Evants tweeted yesterday, “I genuinely cannot understand how anyone can look at the last 30 years of tech and think any of today’s winners are invulnerable.”