By John Kay (Financial Times, Published: November 10 2009)
You can become wealthy by creating wealth or by appropriating wealth created by other people. When the appropriation of the wealth of others is illegal it is called theft or fraud. When it is legal, economists call it rent-seeking.
Rent-seeking takes many forms. On Europe’s oldest highway, the Rhine river, the castles on rocky outcrops date from the time when bandits with aristocratic titles extracted tolls from passing traffic. In poor countries the focus of political and business life is often rent-seeking rather than wealth creation. That helps explain why some countries are rich and others poor.
Rent-seeking drives the paradoxical resource curse. Oil or mineral wealth mostly reduces the population’s standard of living because it diverts effort and talent from wealth creation to rent-seeking. Sadly, foreign aid often has a similar effect.
Rent-seeking can be effected through rake-offs on government contracts, or the appropriation of state assets by oligarchs and the relatives of politicians.
But in more advanced economies, rent-seeking takes more sophisticated forms. Instead of 10 per cent on arms sales, we have 7 per cent on new issues. Rents are often extracted indirectly from consumers rather than directly from government: as in protection from competition from foreign goods and new entrants, and the clamour for the extension of intellectual property rights. Rents can also be secured through overpaid employment in overmanned government activities.
Rent-seeking is found whenever economic power is concentrated – in the state, in large private business, in groups of co-operating and colluding firms. Private concentrations of economic power tend to be self-reinforcing. This problem was widely recognised in America’s gilded age. The well-founded fear was that the new mega-rich – the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts – would use their wealth to enhance their political influence and grow their economic power, subverting both the market and democracy. Today it is Russia that exemplifies this problem.
But America has a new generation of rent-seekers. The modern equivalents of castles on the Rhine are first-class lounges and corporate jets. Their occupants are investment bankers and corporate executives.
Control of rent-seeking requires decentralisation of economic power. These policies involve limits on the economic role of the state; constraints on the concentration of economic power in large business; constant vigilance at the boundaries between government and industry; and a mixture of external supervision and internal norms to limit the capacity of greedy individuals in large organisations to grab corporate rents for themselves. Vigorous pursuit of these is the difference between a competitive market economy and a laisser-faire regime, and it is a large difference.
Privatisation and the breaking up of statutory monopolies has reduced rent-seeking by organised groups of public employees. But the scale of corporate rent-seeking activities by business and personal rent-seeking by senior individuals in business and finance has increased sharply.
The outcomes can be seen in the growth of Capitol Hill lobbying and the crowded restaurants of Brussels; in the structure of industries such as pharmaceuticals, media, defence equipment and, of course, financial services; and in the explosion of executive remuneration.
Because innovation is dependent on new entry it is essential to resist concentration of economic power. A stance which is pro-business must be distinguished from a stance which is pro-market. In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that distinction has not been appreciated well enough.
The story is told of the Russian policymaker, visiting the US after the Soviet Union collapsed, who asked: “Who is in charge of the supply of bread to New York?” The bureaucrat had not learnt how markets work, and we are in danger of forgetting it. The essence of a free market economy is not that the government does not control it. It is that nobody does.