The Making and Unmaking of Ordoliberal Language. A Digital Conceptual History of European Competition Law (c.1950-2020)

Completed PhD Project

This study argues that the ordoliberal school of competition thought can be understood as a distinct linguistic community whose conceptual and semantic influence went beyond Germany and eventually shaped the European legal order. While the negotiations on the founding Treaties were still dominated by linguistic misunderstandings and different normative conceptions of what competition was and what role it should play in future Europe, several scholars and advisers close to ordoliberalism soon started to popularise the Freiburg School’s specific conception of competition when the new competition rules needed to be applied in the 1970s and 1980s, thereby shaping the decisions of the European Commission and the judgements of the European Courts in this critical field of law. It was not until the More Economic Approach reforms implemented by the Commission in the early 2000s that this ordoliberal language was replaced by other concepts and semantics borrowed from the classical Chicago School and the new Industrial Organization literature, ushering in a neoliberal period of European competition law.

To substantiate these arguments, the study combines qualitative analysis of archival materials, personal recollections of key participants, and case law with quantitative Text Mining methods. In doing so, it contributes to the historiography of EU competition law’s intellectual underpinnings, the post-war history of ordoliberalism, the channels of neoliberalism’s global rise, and methodological debates about the practical utility of Digital Humanities in the social sciences. It turns out that normative ideas are particularly persistent and influential when distilled into evocative concepts that become bound up in legal rules and doctrines.

This study was submitted as a doctoral thesis to Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main in May 2022.

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