Thomas K. McCraw observed in 1984 that, “…the FTC had many parents, but it captured the special attention of none. Troubled in its infancy, awkward in adolescence, clumsy in adulthood, the agency never found a coherent mission for itself…The primary reason behind

[its] dolorous history has been identified as the persistent confusion and ambiguity of the American public towards competition—the very problem the FTC Act was intended to solve.”[1] Competition policy may seek several different goals, from the maintenance of desirable levels of growth from the economy as a whole, to the control of “big business,” or to the encouragement of competition as an end it itself.

The lack of clear policy goals was a chief critique of Commissioner Nelson Gaskill, who joined the agency in 1920. He reflected: “Eagerly he (Chairman Victor Murdock, a progressive) asked me, ‘What do you think unfair competition means?’ I had never seen the animal, either roaming its native wilds or in a state of captivity…I had nothing to offer constructive.” He continued, colorfully, “The truth of the matter is that in the beginning anybody’s guess as to what unfair competition might mean was as good as anybody else’s. Congress had strongly suspected that some predatory animal was robbing the henroost. It ordered that the animal be caught and killed. But it neglected to say whether the animal ran on two legs or four, sang, howled or grunted, was carnivorous or vegetarian, roosted in trees or slept on the ground…”[2]
A recent articulation of the FTC’s mission was, “To prevent business practices that are anticompetitive or deceptive or unfair to consumers; to enhance informed consumer choice and public understanding of the competitive process; and to accomplish these missions without unduly burdening legitimate business activity.”[3]

[1] Thomas K. McCraw, Prophets of Regulation 81 (1984).

[2] Nelson B. Gaskill, The Regulation of Competition: A Study of Futility as Exemplified by the Federal Trade Commission and National Industrial Recovery Act with Proposals for Its Remedy (1936).

[3] For an in-depth discussion of the FTC’s mission, see William E. Kovacic, The Federal Trade Commission at 100: Into Our 2nd Century, The Continuing Pursuit of Better Practices (Jan. 2009).