Monopolizing on History
Many of the case studies in this text have focused on current events, but lets step into the past to observe how monopoly, or near monopolies, have helped shape history. In the spring of 1773, the East India Company, a firm that, in its time, was designated “too big to fail,” was experiencing ongoing financial difficulties. To help shore up the failing firm, the British Parliament authorized the Tea Act. The act continued the tax on teas and made the East India Company the sole legal supplier of tea to the American colonies, giving them legal monopoly power. By November, the citizens of Boston had had enough. They refused to permit the tea to be unloaded, citing their main complaint: “No taxation without representation.” Arriving tea-bearing ships were warned via several newspapers, including The Massachusetts Gazette, “We are prepared, and shall not fail to pay them an unwelcome visit.”
The result? When the ships arrived, a group called the Sons of Liberty boarded them and threw their chests of tea into the sea. This was the culmination of a resistance movement throughout British America against the Tea Act. Ultimately this escalated to the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
Fast forward in time to 1860—the eve of the American Civil War—to another near-monopoly supplier of historical significance: the U.S. cotton industry. At the time, the Southern States provided the majority of the cotton Britain imported. Wanting to secede from the Union, the South hoped to leverage Britain’s high dependency on its cotton into formal diplomatic recognition of the Confederate States of America.
Southern cotton-merchants spontaneously refused to ship out their cotton in early 1861. The strategy, now known as ‘King Cotton’ was relatively unsuccessful. By summer 1861, the Union Navy had blockaded every major Confederate port and shut down over 95% of exports, making it so they couldn’t export Cotton if they wanted to. Britain was able to draw on stockpiles of cotton while finding imports from new sources, and the confederacy no longer received much needed gold.
Monopoly sellers often see no threats to their superior marketplace position. In the case of tea, the monopoly market structure was a key reason for social change. With Cotton, its power a military strategy. In this topic we will explore a range of market structures, each with unique attributes.
We analyzed perfect competition in depth in Topic 7. Now, let’s view the other extreme and examine a firm’s behaviour without competition.