With good reason, we are encouraged to understand history, but for some, perhaps, the temptation to repeat past mistakes is just too great.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato described sophists, paid philosophers often involved in public works, as those who twisted words and truth to win arguments. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In democratic Athens of the latter fifth century B.C.E., however, [virtue] was increasingly understood in terms of the ability to influence one’s fellow citizens in political gatherings through rhetorical persuasion; the sophistic education both grew out of and exploited this shift.” Truth was not as important as winning the argument, so even deception was acceptable as long as victory resulted. Today, California is repeating that past.
Last year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued Amazon, claiming that the company was somehow harming competition by contracting with sellers to offer their best price on Amazon. While presumably consumers are just fine with guaranteed low prices, they may take a dim view of yet more expensive, quixotic lawsuits that consume time and taxpayer dollars that could be best directed elsewhere in the state. But these still are not the worst parts of how Bonta has handled the situation.
Last week, the AG’s office, as reported in Bloomberg Law, publicly claimed that Amazon had not reached out about a potential settlement even though it had done so in Europe. Posturing, he said he was open to a settlement because his real goal was to make Amazon change the practice of requiring vendors to guarantee low prices to customers.
Great arguments to influence the citizens, but deceptive.
As it turns out, Bloomberg News reported this week that Amazon had—counter to Bonta’s public claims—made a variety of offers: “Amazon proposed multiple settlement offers to the California AG’s office attempting to resolve its concerns in ways that wouldn’t force us to feature higher prices for our customers, although we have not received any counteroffers from the California AG to date, we remain hopeful for constructive dialogue going forward.”
More poignantly, though, is the letter that has come to light, which was sent before the lawsuit was even filed and taxpayer resources consumed by legal fees. Also in Bloomberg, “In a Sept. 13, 2022, letter to the office of California’s attorney general viewed by Bloomberg, Bryson Bachman, Amazon’s lead competition lawyer, wrote that the company was willing to change its seller notices and pricing policies to make clear that it doesn’t require price parity with other websites.”
The AG’s office had no comment. Maybe when the goal is to win, explaining blatantly contradictory physical evidence is not necessary?
The whole incident does cause one to question why Attorney General Bonta started this public rumor in the first place. What was discussed when he met with FTC Chair Lina Khan right before he denied that Amazon attempted to resolve the issue? Could it be that this “devil may care” attitude about the facts pollutes not only the California case but also the FTC’s pursuit of Amazon? Maybe. But how will California citizens or U.S. taxpayers ever know for sure now?
The ancient Greeks did not know Sir Walter Scott, of course, but he did capture much of Plato’s indictment of the sophists in writing, “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.” In this case also, entangling the world wide web is an unnecessary legal mess.
The problem goes even deeper than the motives and words of AG Bonta and the FTC being deeply suspect. This sort of behavior is precisely what the public expects from politicians and bureaucrats. Feeding that cynicism only further erodes the declining trust of local government and accelerates the collapse of trust in the federal government. This path hurts Californians in many ways. If Bonta and his allies succeed, it will force higher prices online, higher taxes to pay for a lawsuit that never needed to happen, and a government that fewer and fewer trust.
Plato was right to be deeply skeptical of sophists.
Bartlett Cleland is a senior fellow in tech and innovation at the Pacific Research Institute.