The Federal Trade Commission Act’s ban on “unfair . . . acts and practices” would, on its face, seem to give the FTC an awesome power to define proper treatment of consumers in changing conditions. But even in a world of widespread corporate surveillance, ongoing racial discrimination, impenetrably complex financial products, pyramid schemes, and more, the unfairness authority is used rarely, mostly in egregious cases of wrongdoing. Why?
The standard explanation is that the more expansive notion of unfairness was tried in the 1970s, and it failed spectacularly. The FTC of this era was staffed by bureaucrats convinced of their own moral superiority and blind to the self-correcting dynamics of the market. When the FTC finally reached too far and tried to ban television advertising of sugary cereals to children, it undermined its own legitimacy, causing Congress to put pressure on the agency to narrow its definition of unfairness.
This Article argues that this standard explanation gets the law and the history wrong, and, thus, that the FTC’s unfairness authority is more potent than commonly assumed. The regulatory initiatives of the 1970s were actually quite popular. The backlash against them was led by the businesses whose profit margins they threatened. Leaders of these businesses had become increasingly radicalized and well-organized and brought their new political clout to bear on an unsuspecting FTC. It was not the re-articulation of the unfairness standard in 1980 that narrowed unfairness to its current form, but rather the subsequent takeover of the FTC by neoliberal economists and lawyers who had been supported by these radicalized business leaders. The main limitation on the use of the unfairness authority since then has been the ideology of regulators charged with its enforcement. In fact, the conventional morality tale about the FTC’s efforts in the 1970s are part of what keeps this ideology dominant.
A reconsideration of the meaning of unfairness requires situating the drama of the 1970s and 80s in a longer struggle over governance of consumer markets. Since the creation of the FTC, and even before, an evolving set of coalitions have battled over what makes markets fair. These coalitions can be divided roughly into those who favor norm setting by government agencies informed by experts held accountable to democratic publics and those who favor norm setting by business leaders made accountable via the profit motive. The meaning of “unfair . . . acts and practices” has been defined and redefined through these struggles, and it can and should be redefined again to reconstruct the state capacity to define standards of fair dealing.