The dangers of economic monopolies are clear. As Ec10 students know, firms that monopolize the market maximize their own profits and reduce social surplus, charging higher prices and producing a lower quantity of goods than a market with genuinely free enterprise. Likewise, firms with disproportionate market power have the ability to stifle innovation by pushing out competitors and dissuading start-ups from entering the market in the first place. Accordingly, governments use antitrust regulations to break up existing monopolies, prevent firms from accumulating excess market power, and ensure a more level economic playing field.
Much like economic monopolies can distort ostensibly “free” economic marketplaces, social monopolies can distort ostensibly “free” social marketplaces. Harvard’s historically all-male final clubs offer conspicuous proof of this. Their prominent properties in Harvard Square stand as physical testaments to the power that they are able to exercise over the student body. Although only approximately 7 percent of recent graduating classes were members of an all male-final club, these institutions have a highly disproportionate influence over Harvard’s social landscape.
It is no wonder why hundreds of sophomore men, even progressives, flock to punch events year after year. The historically all-male clubs offer prospective members a gateway to well-connected, wealthy alumni networks. The clubs’ storied legacies and lavish amenities add to the recruitment package. Other venues for drinking and socializing simply pale in comparison: after all, it is pretty surreal to enter into an opulent house on Mount Auburn Street, get served delicious food and fine wine, and party in the same halls that past presidents and business leaders once did.
In economic parlance, this social monopoly exists because a close substitute doesn’t exist. The female final clubs, fraternities, and sororities cannot truly compete with the wealth and resources that the historically all-male final clubs have built up. On a Friday night, the social scene revolves around the A.D, not La Vie or Sigma Chi. The historically all-male clubs have a stranglehold over Harvard’s social scene, precluding other social competitors from flourishing and indirectly limiting the amount of social “goods” produced in our common social marketplace.
Opponents of penalties against final clubs often harp upon the importance of freedom of association, stressing that Harvard should not be able to have jurisdiction over students’ own private social lives. In response to last year’s proposed sanctions, former Dean of the College Harry Lewis emphasized, “Students’ membership in organizations is their own business, not the College’s.” Former University President Lawrence Summers echoed Lewis’ reasoning, underscoring that “freedom of association is a profoundly important value.” Robert Shipley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, similarly lambasted the sanctions, asserting, “When you don’t have an equal opportunity for people of different points of views to participate in what’s supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, you’re impoverishing that education.”
Yet, do completely unregulated social marketplaces give people an “equal opportunity” to participate? Free association is not genuinely free when affluent private institutions that bought property in Harvard Square more than a century ago are able to dominate the social marketplace. Those who truly believe in free association, much like those who truly believe in free enterprise, should realize that free association depends upon encouraging a freer competition amongst social organizations on campus. Much like governments use antitrust regulations to limit the adverse power of economic monopolies, Harvard should enact targeted policies that create a more equal playing field for all social groups on campus.
However, the administration has not proposed policies that address the disproportionate market share that the male final clubs have, but rather has decided to shut down wide swaths of the social marketplace altogether. The initial diktat against all “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” and the faculty committee’s more recent ban against all “private, exclusionary social organizations” completely lack nuance. The administration’s criticism of the exclusion that USGSOs perpetuate rings hollow coming from one of the most elitist and exclusionary institutions in the world. Additionally, by lumping together fraternities, sororities, and the female final clubs into the same category as the historically all-male clubs, the administration has failed to recognize that not all USGSOs are created equal.
Instead of punishing any private exclusionary group, Harvard should pass nuanced, narrowly-tailored statutes to limit the final clubs’ excessive market power and encourage genuinely free competition in Harvard’s social marketplace. For example, Harvard could revise its initial sanctions so that they only apply to the historically all-male final clubs that have owned property in Harvard Square for over a century. Sophomores would have to choose between these clubs and an endorsement for a prestigious scholarship, a varsity captaincy, or a leadership position at a Harvard student organization.
Moreover, Harvard should also encourage the development of alternative social organizations. While campus publications and extracurricular activities provide some outlet, social groups (including fraternities and sororities) in which students can congregate to engage in more casual fun should exist as well. More student-oriented bars and music venues in Harvard Square would certainly attract undergraduates: perhaps the Queen’s Head could move to Mount Auburn Street. Likewise, President Faust’s decision to provide more money for undergraduate social events is an encouraging step forward, although the administration should make sure that these events remain student-controlled and student-driven. This targeted approach would help break up the final clubs’ monopoly over the social marketplace and actually protect freedom of association.