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A Normative Approach to The Criminalisation of Cartel Activity

Dr Bruce Wardhaugh, Legal Studies, Vol. 32 No. 3, 2012, pp. 369–395.

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Although cartel behaviour is almost universally (and rightly) condemned, it is not clear why cartel participants deserve the full wrath of the criminal law and its associated punishment. To fill this void, I develop a normative (or principled) justification for the criminalisation of conduct characteristic of ‘hard core’ cartels. The paper opens with a brief consideration of the rhetoric commonly used to denounce cartel activity, eg that it ‘steals from’ or ‘robs’ consumers. To put the discussion in context, a brief definition of ‘hard core’ cartel behaviour is provided and the harms associated with this activity are identified. These are: welfare losses in the form of appropriation (from consumer to producer) of consumer surplus, the creation of deadweight loss to the economy, the creation of productive inefficiency (hindering innovation of both products and processes), and the creation of so-called X-inefficiency. As not all activities which cause harm ought to be criminalised, a theory as to why certain harms in a liberal society can be criminalised is developed. It is based on JS Mill’s harm to others principle (as refined by Feinberg) and on a choice of social institutions using Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance.’ The theory is centred on the value of individual choice in securing one’s own well-being, with the market as an indispensable instrument for this. But as applied to the harm associated with cartel conduct, this theory shows that none of the earlier mentioned problems associated with this activity provide sufficient justification for criminalisation. However, as the harm from hard core cartel activity strikes at an important institution which permits an individual’s ability to secure their own well-being in a liberal society, criminalisation of hard core cartel behaviour can have its normative justification on this basis.

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