Definitions and Basics

Rent Seeking, by David R. Henderson, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

“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.

Unintended Consequences, by Rob Norton, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or “unintended.” Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it….

Most often, however, the law of unintended consequences illuminates the perverse unanticipated effects of legislation and regulation. In 1692 John Locke, the English philosopher and a forerunner of modern economists, urged the defeat of a parliamentary bill designed to cut the maximum permissible rate of interest from 6 percent to 4 percent. Locke argued that instead of benefiting borrowers, as intended, it would hurt them. People would find ways to circumvent the law, with the costs of circumvention borne by borrowers. To the extent the law was obeyed, Locke concluded, the chief results would be less available credit and a redistribution of income away from “widows, orphans and all those who have their estates in money.”

Public Choice Theory, by William F. Shughart II, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Public choice theory is a branch of economics that developed from the study of taxation and public spending. It emerged in the fifties and received widespread public attention in 1986, when James Buchanan, one of its two leading architects (the other was his colleague Gordon Tullock), was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics….

Political Behavior, by Richard L. Stroup, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Political activity, however, is startlingly different from voluntary exchange in markets. In a democracy groups can accomplish many things in politics that they could not in the private sector. Some of these are vital to the broader community’s welfare, such as control of health-threatening air pollution from myriad sources affecting millions of individuals, or the provision of national defense. Other public-sector actions provide narrow benefits that fall far short of their costs….

Government Spending, by Gordon Tullock, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

In the past, government spending increased during wars and then typically took some time to fall back to its previous level. Because the effects of World War I were not totally gone by 1929, the line for the United States from 1790 to 1929 has a very slight upward slant. But in the second quarter of the twentieth century, government spending began a rapid and steady increase. While economists and political scientists have offered many theories about what determines the level of government spending, there really is no known explanation for either part of this historical record….

Considering what governments spend money on may help. Government spending on so-called public goods, national defense and police, for example, is sometimes blamed.

It is frequently asserted that the government spends much in helping the poor. Although the government does do so, the bulk of all transfer payments go to people who are relatively well off.

Economists trying to explain government spending have recently attributed it to special interest coalitions lobbying the government to transfer wealth to them. The term economists use to describe such lobbying is “rent-seeking.”

In the News and Examples

Gas Station That Gave Discounts to Elderly Ordered to Raise Prices, from, May 9, 2007.

MERRILL, Wis.— A service station that offered discounted gas to senior citizens and people supporting youth sports has been ordered by the state to raise its prices.

Center City BP owner Raj Bhandari has been offering senior citizens a 2 cent per gallon price break and discount cards that let sports boosters pay 3 cents less per gallon.

But the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection says those deals violate Wisconsin’s Unfair Sales Act, which requires stations to sell gas for about 9.2 percent more than the wholesale price….

Lessons From Solyndra, by Robert P. Murphy at Econlib:

In September 2011, solar energy giant Solyndra filed for bankruptcy and laid off all of its approximately 1,100 employees. The collapse was a major embarrassment for the Obama Administration because both President Obama and Vice President Biden had publicly singled out Solyndra–recipient of some half a billion dollars in taxpayer-backed loan guarantees–as a shining success of their approach to job creation and climate change. The embarrassment soon turned to scandal, however, as legislators discovered that the Administration had apparently ignored early warnings about extending such loans to Solyndra. As of this writing (four months after Solyndra’s collapse), Republican legislators are still pressing the Administration to release more emails between key officials to determine when they learned the true situation.

My goal here is twofold: first, to summarize the key events in the Solyndra case and explain why it is a scandal and not just a bad investment; and second, to look beyond the Solyndra case to critique the very concept of government loan guarantees to particular companies. Because both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations supported such loan guarantees, this is a bipartisan critique….

Drug Lag, by Daniel Henninger, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

The modern history of drug regulation in the United States has been marked by the simultaneous pursuit of two goals—safety and efficacy. Since passage of the 1962 amendments to the Food and Drug Act, most members of the medical and regulatory establishment have regarded those two goals as complementary. By the early seventies, however, critics had begun to charge that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in its pursuit of these goals, was delaying or preventing the timely introduction of promising new drugs for seriously ill patients….

Rent-Seek and You Will Find, by Mike Munger on Econlib

“I don’t know if we should stay in this business.” That city official was just being honest, but his framing of the problem surprised me. The “business” he was referring to was writing and winning grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency charged with improving home ownership and low-income housing availability. Fifteen years ago, when I had this conversation, I didn’t understand what he meant….

Munger on Private and Public Rent-Seeking (and Chilean Buses), EconTalk podcast.

Mike Munger of Duke University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about private and public rent-seeking. When firms compete for either private profit opportunities or government contracts, there are inevitably firms or people who spend resources but end up earning little or nothing. What are the differences, if any between these two forms of competition? How do they related to competitions that award prizes for discovering new technologies? The conversation begins with a discussion of a recent trip Munger took to Chile where he observed the current state of the Chilean bus system, a topic he has discussed in the past.

Satire on lobbying illustrating the unintended consequences of government policies: “A Petition”, by Frédéric Bastiat (pronounced bas-tee-AH). Chapter 7 in Economic Sophisms

From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Candlesticks, Street Lamps,….

To the Honorable Members of the Chamber of Deputies….

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry….

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun,…

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Democracies and Dictatorships. Podcast on EconTalk

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of NYU and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution talks about the incentives facing dictators and democratic leaders. Both have to face competition from rivals. Both try to please their constituents and cronies to stay in power. He applies his insights to foreign aid, the Middle East, Venezuela, the potential for China’s evolution to a more democratic system, and Cuba. Along the way, he explains why true democracy is more than just elections–it depends crucially on freedom of assembly and freedom of the press….

Lobbying is rent seeking. Zingales on Capitalism and Crony Capitalism. EconTalk Podcast:

Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago and author of A Capitalism for the People talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in his book. Zingales argues that the financial sector has used its political power to enhance the size of the sector and the compensations executives receive. This is symptomatic of a larger problem where special interests steer resources and favors based on their political influence. Zingales argues for a capitalism for the people rather than a capitalism for cronies or the politically powerful. The conversation concludes with a plea by Zingales to his fellow economists to speak out against behavior that is legal but immoral–lobbying Congress for special treatment that exploits others to benefit one’s own industry, for example.

Economists agree about the drawbacks of rent seeking even if they disagree about other things. Stiglitz on Inequality. EconTalk Podcast:

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in his recent book, The Price of Inequality. Stiglitz argues that the American economy is dysfunctional, benefitting only those at the very top while the bulk of the workforce sees little or no gain in their standard of living over recent decades. Stiglitz blames this result on deregulation and the political power of the financial sector and others at the top. He wants an increase in regulation and the role of government in the economy and a more transparent Federal Reserve Bank that he blames for coddling the financial sector. The conversation also includes a discussion of the Keynesian multiplier.

Peltzman on Regulation. Podcast on EconTalk

Sam Peltzman of the University of Chicago talks about his views on safety, regulation, unintended consequences and the political economy of bad regulation. The focus is on his pioneering studies of automobile safety and FDA pharmaceutical regulation and the perverse incentives that even good intentions can produce….

Podcast Archive on Public Choice. EconTalk

A Little History: Primary Sources and References

Bad outcomes happen when government listens to lobbyists representing producers. “A Negative Railroad”, by Frédéric Bastiat. Chapter 17 in Economic Sophisms

I find a remarkable illustration of this in a Bordeaux newspaper.

M. Simiot raises the following question:

Should there be a break in the tracks at Bordeaux on the railroad from Paris to Spain?

He answers the question in the affirmative and offers a number of reasons, of which I propose to examine only this:

There should be a break in the railroad from Paris to Bayonne at Bordeaux; for, if goods and passengers are forced to stop at that city, this will be profitable for boatmen, porters, owners of hotels, etc….

James M. Buchanan, biography from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

James Buchanan is the cofounder, along with Gordon Tullock, of public choice theory. Buchanan entered the University of Chicago’s graduate economics program as a “libertarian socialist.”…

Representative Democracy, in Lalor’s Cyclopedia of Political Economy

History. The idea and the word (democracy) are of Hellenic origin. In their relations with foreigners or the barbarians, the Greeks looked upon themselves as aristocrats. In their relations with one another at home, in their petty states, they were democrats, and felt as such….

Advanced Resources

The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan. Nine volumes on Econlib, along with other writings by Nobel Prize winner James M. Buchanan.

Related Topics

Roles of Government

Barriers to Trade

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Market Failures, Public Goods, and Externalities