Rent-Seeking

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 11th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth Creators Freely met and Made Trades they felt were Mutually Beneficial

The human race started as subsistence hunters and gatherers.  Our ancestors spent all of their time hunting.  And gathering.  If they were successful they propagated our species.  Making it possible for us to be here.  If they weren’t their family tree was a barren one. 

So that was life.  A rather short and brutish life.  Except that part about propagating the species.  And we lived that way for some 2 million years.  Eating.  Fleeing.  Fighting.  And, of course, propagating.  As we grew more intelligent we did a lot of things that ushered in the modern world.  But perhaps the single greatest advancement that brought on the modern age was our evolution from hunters and gatherers to farmers.  Everything followed from this.  We learned to live together in cities.  And we increased crop yields so much we created food surpluses.  Which gave us time to do other things.  It allowed the rise of artisans.  A middle class.  That built things and traded them for their food.  These new goods helped produce more food.  And the greater food production allowed more people to do other things.  Creating a complex economy.  Where people traveled to market with the things they created.  And traded them for the things other people brought to market.  We traded things of value for other things of value.  Because these traders, these wealth creators, each created something of value.

These wealth creators freely met and made trades they felt were mutually beneficial.  Each felt they came out a winner after their trade.  For they each received something they valued more than what they traded away to get it.  Which means going to the market was where to go to get valuable things.  Which provided an incentive to make more things so you could take them to market.  And trade for things you valued more.  As everyone did this the overall wealth in the economy increased.  People specialized.  Focused on what they were good at.  To produce as much as possible so they could trade for more.  And because they specialized they improved quality.  And used the available resources as efficiently as possible.

Rent-Seeking People took more Wealth from the Market than they Brought to It

There are many competing schools of economics.  But if you go back to where it all began what you find is laissez faire free market capitalism.  Where the profit incentive drove people to create wealth.  Which they then traded for the things they didn’t make.  Then things started to change.  Some people didn’t want to work hard and innovate.  And bring new things to market.  What they wanted was influence.  Privilege.  And a rigged market.  So they could get more in trade than the value of the things they produced for trade.  One of the first vehicles used for this was the artisan guild.

In medieval Europe if you wanted to be a blacksmith you had to join a guild.  If the guild accepted you a long apprenticeship awaited you.  But the guilds denied more people entry than they allowed.  Why?  To limit competition.  So blacksmiths could keep their prices high.  At any given time a city, town or village had a very limited number of blacksmiths.  The guild worked to keep it that way.  For the last thing these blacksmiths wanted was other blacksmiths opening up shop.  Putting more goods onto the market.  And lowering prices.  No, the guild wanted to fix prices above their market value by keeping would-be blacksmiths out of the trade.

The economic term for this is rent-seeking.  Which is sort of the opposite of profit seeking.  In profit-seeking people create wealth to trade (or to pay) for other wealth.  They work hard to earn more so they can buy more.  Both buyer and seller add wealth to the economy.  Not so in rent-seeking.  In rent-seeking you try to garner more wealth not by working harder but by using the power of government.  By getting tariffs placed on foreign competition.  By getting prices fixed above market prices.  By getting onerous regulations enacted to hurt your competition.  By restricting entrance into the industry thus limiting domestic competition.  Such as the guilds did for those medieval blacksmiths.  This interference into laissez faire free market capitalism reduced economic activity.  Because rent-seeking people took more wealth from the market than they brought to it.

The Government caused the Great Depression by Favoring Rent-Seeking over Free Market Capitalism

Some say a better name for rent-seeking is privilege seeking.  For that is what they are seeking.  Special privilege so they don’t have to compete in the free market.  For the cost of a little lobbying can remove the need for innovation.  Maintaining the level of quality.  Or satisfying customers.  For if you have a government-imposed monopoly you don’t have to do any of those things because the people don’t have anywhere else to go.

Rent-seeking is rife in crony capitalism and state capitalism.  Neither of which is true capitalism.  These companies are granted monopolies (or near monopolies) by the government in exchange for political support.  Which they can afford when they can sell their goods above market prices.  They get rich.  Their cronies in government get rich.  But the consumers suffer.  As they have to pay higher prices. Suffer poorer quality.  And less innovation.  Rent-seeking is common in the older industries.  Particularly ones with strong unions.  Who have negotiated costly wage and benefit packages.  Which they can afford to pay until new innovation and new competition enters the market.  Putting out a higher quality product at a lower price.  Prices so low that an old firm saddled with a costly union wage and benefit package simply can’t sell at and pay their bills.  So they go to government.  And lobby for privilege.

What typically happens is that they delay the inevitable.  All the protected industries in the U.S. have failed.  Textile.  Steel.  Even the automobile (well, two of the Big Three have failed.  Ford hasn’t).  For when you take more wealth from the market than you bring to it you’re just transferring wealth.  You’re not creating it.  Which is a problem.  Because you have to create wealth to increase economic activity.  So when you protect an industry you’re just pulling wealth out of the private economy and transferring it to the rent-seekers.  Who give so little in return.   Which results in a decline of economic activity.  And if it spreads enough it can and has caused recessions.  Even a Great Depression.  Such as when domestic industries lobbied government to enact the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Which launched an all-out trade war.  All because the government favored rent-seeking over free market capitalism.

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