The Sherman Antitrust Act, one of the first major business regulatory attempts after the Civil War, is broken down into two main parts: Section 1 and Section 2. Within Section 2, the main topics covered are the use of monopolies, whether intended or unintended, and either by an individual company or companies, to restrain interstate commerce.
Section 1, however, puts a greater emphasis on the actual nature of constraining interstate commerce. Within this vacuum many different forms of constraint come into play with different legal interpretations as well.
Violations of the Sherman Act under the provisions of Section 1 are considered ‘per se’ violations. These are blatantly obvious attempts by a company or individual to constrain the free market. While some cases do, in fact, fall under the per se logic of judicial reasoning, the second form of judicial restraint comes under the ‘rule of reason’.
To a degree, any business deal between two or more parties will constrain interstate commerce in some fashion. Because of this the rule of reason needs to be applied in order to differentiate between fair and unfair business practices. This brings into play the first section of the Act to the different types of restraint present within the market.
The first type of restraint addressed happens through a form of horizontal integration. This is the practice of two rival companies within the same sector colluding to gain a greater market share and squeeze out smaller competitors. Differing from vertical integration, horizontal integration will expose two or more companies to legal recourse.
Horizontal agreements between firms either manifest usually through attempts at price-fixing, which inhibits the free market’s ability to determine the fair price of a good in turn benefiting the company, or sector alignment, where companies agree to sell either within a certain state or certain area of their product’s consumers.
The second form sometimes is less obvious as a consumer in one state is free to purchase a good from any other state, but when companies agree to stay in their own regional zones this makes the choices less obvious to the consumers allowing the producers a greater control over prices within their sphere of influence.
Vertical integration, which occurred most notably at the turn of the 20th century, addressed constraints caused by producers colluding at different levels of the manufacturing process. For example, an oil producer makes exclusive agreements with one shipper. The shipper makes exclusive agreements with one extractor, thereby lowering the costs for the entire process. This vertically integrates the oil market and would give an advantage to each company along the manufacturing line. Instead of affecting the sector as a whole, it limits competition at each individual level, constraining free trade, making this practice illegal.
The first section of the Sherman Act brings into focus clearly business deals that would constrain interstate commerce. Businesses have a variety of ways to end up constraining the market. They can accomplish this goal either horizontally or vertically, and in some cases they can even exclude certain regional areas allowing them to focus on a specific area driving up prices. All of these practices are illegal under the Sherman Act and are punished as felonies.