Complexity Books for Antitrust Lawyers


Author: Steven J. Cernak

Two months ago, I encouraged all readers of this blog to read Complexity-Minded Antitrust by Nicolas Petit and Thibault Schrepel. As I explained in that article, I think their suggestion that antitrust lawyers and policymakers should consider applying learnings from complexity theory to antitrust questions was a good one.

I hope you heeded my suggestion. Over 1300 others have at least downloaded the article. After reading the article, I wanted to get smarter about complexity as well. I had dipped my toe in the complexity water during my graduate economics studies and early legal career but that was decades ago during complexity’s infancy. How had it developed and how might it apply to antitrust issues?

To get back up to speed, I read several books on the topics. Below, I outline my thoughts on each of them. I encourage other antitrust experts to read these or other materials to stay abreast of where our field might be (should be?) heading. If you have other suggested readings, please let me know.

First, take a look at Neil Chilson’s Getting Out of Control, his short and easily readable book on emergent order that I reviewed for this blog last October. As I described in that review, Chilson uses everyday examples to define emergent order and distinguish it from randomness and designed order. He then builds on those definitions to discuss an example of emergent order near and dear to all antitrusters, the price system. From there, he derives principles for anyone (like antitrust enforcers?) dealing with emergent order to observe: expect complicated results even from simple actions; push decisions down to actors with local information; and be humble. Short, sweet, and by an author with FTC experience, this book is the one to read if you only read one.

Second, I re-watched Understanding Complexity by Scott Page, one of The Great Courses that I had purchased several years ago. I thought this course was a great summary of complexity, how it relates to many disciplines, and how its concepts can apply in many everyday settings. Page defines the attributes of complex systems—diversity, connection, interdependence, adaptation—and distinguishes such systems from others that are really just complicated. From these tools, he derives now familiar concepts like tipping and path dependence and explains why truly complex systems can be harnessed, perhaps, but not controlled. I recommend this course for an easy-to-understand but more complete and formal view of complexity.

(Disclosure: Scott Page lived a few doors down from me in my University of Michigan dormitory. In a hallway full of smart young men with great enthusiasm for Michigan athletics, Page was one of the smartest and most enthusiastic.)

I was disappointed in Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. While I was looking for a general description of complexity and its roots, this book went farther afield than I wanted or could appreciate. It covers many disparate subjects—genetics, evolution, biology—and has some interesting history of the science and some of its pioneers; however, Mitchell spends more time talking about that history and justifications for why complexity might be its own separate discipline than I found interesting. I can only recommend it for those interested in math history.

On the other hand, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers covered just the right amount of complexity background, history, and context before applying it to various public policies. Antitrust gets a brief mention with a very short summary of the U.S. Microsoft case. More generally, the authors try to use complexity theory to begin the development of a third way of thinking about public policy choices, what they call laissez faire activism, as compared to defaulting to having either the market or the federal government do everything. Here are some of the key points that I think make this book, right after Chilson’s, one that antitrust folks should read:

  • The economy and various parts of it can be non-linear and able to self-organize and, so, able to be influenced but difficult to control;
  • Complexity theory and math can clarify choices but will not prescribe solutions;
  • There is a potential tradeoff between efficiency and resiliency that businesses (especially those that misunderstood all aspects of the Toyota Production System) and policymakers should consider;
  • Economic policy is not all of social policy and increasing material welfare is not the single goal of society;
  • Path dependency can exist but not in all cases

Finally, I can recommend Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by, again, Scott Page, only if you really want to go deep in the weeds on complexity or are managing a group. I had another, more personal, reason for wanting to read it.

When I was at General Motors and during one of its regular crises before bankruptcy, I was working with a couple of consultants. One of them found it odd that GM always seemed to have financial and performance problems because their employees individually seemed so smart and talented: “They’re all a bunch of Eagle Scouts,” was his pithy way of describing us. His partner replied, “That’s the problem, they’re all the same.” This exchange reminded me of a management training exercise that I had participated in several years earlier with 19 other GM executives where nearly all of us had been rated ISTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality test. Now whatever you might think of Myers-Briggs, it seemed odd, and perhaps bad, that all of us seemed to have the same personality. Maybe the GM of the early 21st Century would have performed better with more Boss Ketterings, Harold Hamiltons, or even a John Z. DeLorean (without the drug trafficking)?

Page’s book does not provide a simplistic answer, either to my question or how diversity affects complexity or group interactions. Instead, in very readable prose (and just a little math), Page goes through the different types of differences (goals, perspectives, more) and when those different “toolboxes” of attributes might, or might not, provide a better solution to a difficult problem. In short, the book shows how and when old sayings like “the wisdom of crowds” and “two heads are better than one” might be true. Interesting material and more than a few Ann Arbor references but probably not the first book on complexity that an interested antitrust person needs to read.

So, as I did in my original review of the Petit/Schrepel article, I recommend that antitrust folks dive into the world of complexity; however, make sure you do it for the right reasons. Do not read any of these books and expect to find some specific antitrust advice—it is not there. Do not read any of these books and expect to find only support for your Neo-Brandeisian or neo-Bork antitrust views—the material could be used to support both sides, or neither side, in today’s antitrust debates. Instead, read these books to open your mind to a different way of viewing human and other interactions that might affect the assumptions you bring to economic and antitrust discussions.

Now, if you really only want to focus on books that can help you better advise your antitrust clients today, fine, I still have a book recommendation for you: Check out the 2022 edition of Cernak’s Antitrust in Distribution and Franchising for a summary of antitrust law today applied to the distribution of goods and services in the U.S.

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