Vindicating Rockefeller's Standard Oil

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that found Standard Oil guilty of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. As punishment, the world's largest and most successful oil company was broken into 34 pieces.

 

Ever since, Standard Oil has served as the textbook example of why we need antitrust law. The Court's decision affirmed a popular account of Standard Oil's success, first made famous by journalists Henry Demarest Lloyd and Ida Tarbell. In the absence of antitrust laws, the story goes, Standard attained a 90% share of the oil-refining market through unfair and destructive practices such as preferential railroad rebates and “predatory pricing”; Standard then leveraged its unfair advantages to eliminate competition, control the market, and dictate prices. In Lloyd's words, Standard was “making us pay what it pleases for kerosene.”

 

Was it? In 1865, when Rockefeller's market share was still minuscule, a gallon of kerosene cost 58 cents. In 1870, Standard's market share was 4%, and a gallon cost 26 cents. By 1880, when Standard's market share had skyrocketed to 90%, a gallon cost only 9 cents — and a decade later, with Standard's market share still at 90%, the price was 7 cents. These data point to the real cause of Standard Oil's success — its ability to charge the lowest prices by producing kerosene with unparalleled efficiency.

 

 

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