Fair Competition

Laura Phillips Sawyer

Laura Phillips Sawyer

Job Title

HBS Assistant Professor

I began researching the topic of fair competition in graduate school, where I became fascinated with Louis Brandeis’s advocacy for so-called fair trade laws. These laws looked a lot like price-fixing to me, but Brandeis and others defended these laws as necessary protections for small proprietors during unprecedented economic changes such as rapid industrialization or economic depression. His use of political and economic logic to justify antitrust rules that appeared antithetical to the conventional interpretation of American law and economics sparked my interest in the history of US competition policy, law and economics, and federalism.

I recently published a paper in the Business History Review, titled “California Fair Trade: Antitrust and the Politics of 'Fairness' in U.S. Competition Policy.” [This article was awarded the Glenn Sonnedecker Prize for best article of 2016 by the American Institute for the History of Pharmacy]. In the paper I explore how pharmacist trade associations coordinated a state-wide movement in California to control retail marketing and pricing. Prior to the Great Depression, California passed antitrust exemptions for certain groups, such as farmers, unions, and specialty producers. Retail pharmacists extended these occupational exemptions and pressured drug manufacturers to maintain minimum prices throughout the Depression. The article fits into a larger book-length project on American federalism and competition policy by demonstrating how state-level interest group politics altered federal antitrust law and influenced New Deal era price regulation.