By David R. Henderson
Rent seeking” is one of the most important insights in the last fifty years of economics and, unfortunately, one of the most inappropriately labeled. Gordon Tullock originated the idea in 1967, and Anne Krueger introduced the label in 1974. The idea is simple but powerful. People are said to seek rents when they try to obtain benefits for themselves through the political arena. They typically do so by getting a subsidy for a good they produce or for being in a particular class of people, by getting a tariff on a good they produce, or by getting a special regulation that hampers their competitors. Elderly people, for example, often seek higher Social Security payments; steel producers often seek restrictions on imports of steel; and licensed electricians and doctors often lobby to keep regulations in place that restrict competition from unlicensed electricians or doctors.
But why do economists use the term “rent”? Unfortunately, there is no good reason. David Ricardo introduced the term “rent” in economics. It means the payment to a factor of production in excess of what is required to keep that factor in its present use. So, for example, if I am paid $150,000 in my current job but I would stay in that job for any salary over $130,000, I am making $20,000 in rent. What is wrong with rent seeking? Absolutely nothing. I would be rent seeking if I asked for a raise. My employer would then be free to decide if my services are worth it. Even though I am seeking rents by asking for a raise, this is not what economists mean by “rent seeking.” They use the term to describe people’s lobbying of government to give them special privileges. A much better term is “privilege seeking.”
It has been known for centuries that people lobby the government for privileges. Tullock’s insight was that expenditures on lobbying for privileges are costly and that these expenditures, therefore, dissipate some of the gains to the beneficiaries and cause inefficiency. If, for example, a steel firm spends one million dollars lobbying and advertising for restrictions on steel imports, whatever money it gains by succeeding, presumably more than one million, is not a net gain. From this gain must be subtracted the one-million-dollar cost of seeking the restrictions. Although such an expenditure is rational from the narrow viewpoint of the firm that spends it, it represents a use of real resources to get a transfer from others and is therefore a pure loss to the economy as a whole.
Krueger (1974) independently discovered the idea in her study of poor economies whose governments heavily regulated their people’s economic lives. She pointed out that the regulation was so extensive that the government had the power to create “rents” equal to a large percentage of national income. For India in 1964, for example, Krueger estimated that government regulation created rents equal to 7.3 percent of national income; for Turkey in 1968, she estimated that rents from import licenses alone were about 15 percent of Turkey’s gross national product. Krueger did not attempt to estimate what percentage of these rents were dissipated in the attempt to get them. Tullock (1993) tentatively maintained that expenditures on rent-seeking in democracies are not very large.