Michael Hudson on rent-seeking

JisforJunkEconAnother excerpt from Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics, his heterodox ‘guide to reality in an age of deception’. Here he defines and discusses rent-seeking (p.199-200), an important concept in economics. For those seeking a rich and detailed non-mainstream treatment of the theory of rents and rent-seeking and its application to development, I can definitely recommend Khan and Jomo (2000), but Hudson’s discussion is still interesting and provocative:

Rent-seeking: A zero-sum activity in which one party’s gain is another’s loss, unlike new capital investment and hiring that expand an economy’s production and income stream. The classical meaning of “rent-seeking” refers to landlords, natural resource owners or monopolists who extract economic rent by special privilege, without their own labor or enterprise.

Neoliberals have diverted attention from the land rent, resource rent or monopoly rent that classical economists associated with the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector. They have re-defined “rent-seeking” to refer only to politicians and labor unions lobbying for “special privileges”, such as Social Security, a minimum wage and public programs to meet other basic needs. But these programs have nothing to do with classical rent-seeking. They are proper functions of government.

In introducing the term “rent-seeking” in 1974, Anne Krueger applied it to import licensing and quotas that she claimed interfere with free trade, and extended the idea to government regulation in general – including legislation setting a minimum wage, claiming that this led to rising unemployment. Gordon Tullock, a follower of Ludwig von Mises, defined rent-seeking as lobbying by politicians for special privileges such as higher Social Security payments.

As a high-ranking World Bank and IMF official defending free trade, Ms. Krueger opposed agricultural protectionism designed to save foreign economies from food dependency on US farm exports. Conflating rent-seeking with subsidies to modernize, her 2012 book Struggling with Success (p.86) accused all government regulations, tariffs and subsidies of being bad and wasteful. “Ultimately, regulation has negative effects on the market in the country imposing the regulation…” The political effect of such deregulation and non-subsidy is to let “the market” pass by default to financial managers – as if their own major aim is not to seek classic economic rents to empower themselves as monopolists and financial rent-seekers!

Nobel Prize-winner James Buchanan’s euphemistic “public choice” anti-government philosophy (that government should make no choices, except to disappear) goes so far as to claim “that a tax with more excess burden,” such as taxing wages or industrial profits (adding to the cost of living and doing business) is better than a more reasonable tax on land rent with less burden. His argument is that classical rent theory would work, but that this would increase government power, precisely by being reasonable and economically efficient – “because government, if allowed to tax in the less burdensome way, may get more revenue,” which Buchanan opposes.

Such language makes a travesty of economic vocabulary. It strips away the classical association of rent with the FIRE sector, applying it only to the “cost” of government regulations and pretending that only government bureaucrats receive economic rent, not private sector rentiers. This leaves out of account the obvious fact that a strong government is needed to overcome opposition from predatory vested interests. The political effect of “public choice” ideology and its self-proclaimed “libertarian” doctrine is thus to serve as a handmaiden to oligarchy. It relinquishes economic rent to the FIRE sector instead of taxing it.

At the end of this road, imagine everyone paying user fees for everything from fire hydrants to schools, turning every road and parking space into a toll road. Payment for these erstwhile free public services would be made to owners and financiers of these natural monopolies, free from public regulation or other “Big Government” acting to save the economy by preventing predatory fees. In the name of opposing economic rent as “socialism”, AKA “the road to serfdom”, “public choice” doctrine thus prepares the groundwork for classic rent grabbing, financialization and kleptocracy.”


Classical economics, rents and the surplus under capitalism

rents-rent-seeking-coverAn extract from SOAS Professor Mushtaq Khan‘s illuminating chapter on ‘Rents, Efficiency and Growth’ which summarises the classical economists’ concern with the economic surplus. He discusses the relation of the surplus to economic rents, and how conflicts over their distribution can affect economic growth and development.

By drawing on ideas from classical economics in his discussion of rents and rent-seeking, it is possible to broaden the analysis of neo-classical economics, which dominates the modern mainstream, by bringing in the insights of Smith, Ricardo and Marx. The book that this quote comes from ‘radically’ extends the rent-seeking framework, ‘by incorporating insights developed by political scientists, institutional economists, and political economists’.

For me, an interdisciplinary political economy such as this can yield deeper insights into the nature of economic processes by considering notions such as power, conflict and the resultant distribution of resources and their effect on growth and development.

“Our analysis of rents can be substantially extended by introducing some insights from classical political economy. Classical economists were interested in the size and allocation of the economic surplus which constitutes the potential investment fund of a society. In particular, they were concerned with the allocation of the surplus since this determined growth. The surplus could be productively invested, or ‘wasted’ in luxury consumption, and, even when it was invested, its allocation across sectors could determine the rate of growth achieved. While there were differences between classical economists, they defined the surplus not as the excess income of any group but, rather, as the income accruing to property owners after paying the direct costs of production. In a capitalist economy, the principal property owners are capitalists, but landlords and some of the middle classes may also be recipients of parts of the economic surplus. What is interesting about the classical analysis is that distributive conflicts and the associated re-allocations of the ‘economic surplus’ can determine the rate of growth. Thus, like rents, surpluses can be associated with a wide range of economic outcomes, depending on the technological context, and the type of distributive conflict going on over the allocation of the surplus. Since rents too can be the subject of distributive conflicts, the classical analysis is of immediate relevance (my emphasis).”

Mushtaq Khan (2000), Rents, Rent-Seeking and Economic Development, Ch.1, p.23

Rents and rent-seeking: they can be good for your (economic) health


A number of rents, and the rent-seeking which sustained them, played a critical role in the development of capitalism in the East Asian countries. Not only was the creation of rents critical for primitive accumulation and learning, transfer rents were critical for maintaining political stability even though the economic implications of these transfers varied significantly. The role of rents in economic development is worth stressing in the aftermath of the financial crisis of the late 1990s. The depth of this crisis led many economists to link the immediate economic woes of the regions to the systems of rents and rent-seeking popularly described as ‘crony capitalism’. The implicit counterfactual to ‘crony’ capitalism is a ‘genuine and impartial’ capitalism of free markets, zero rents, fair market-determined returns for everyone, and a minimal state which only maintains a level playing field. However appealing such a mythical capitalism may be, our discussion has been concerned to establish that such a model is not relevant for developing economies, and perhaps not for any economy. The relevant distinction is between rent-seeking systems which are developmental and those which are crippling. The relevant policy question is to understand how one may transform into the other…

…The long-run relationship between rent-seeking and growth is of much greater interest. If growth requires the management of growth-enhancing rents rather than the abolition of all rents, high-growth countries will always have rents and will therefore inevitably have to live with rent-seeking. Globalization and liberalization will not change this fundamental economic problem, nor is globalization or liberalization likely to succeed if policy-makers attempt to proceed on the basis of inappropriate no-rent market models. The no-rent model remains compelling not because the evidence supports it, but because its policy implications are much simpler to understand. Our analysis suggests that identifying the conditions which have in the past been conducive for growth is a much more challenging task. The conditions which allow value-enhancing rents to emerge and which limit rent-seeking costs vary from country to country because countries do not have the same political conditions and do not follow the same technology trajectory. This is where a deeper examination of the historical evidence is important to warn us against falling for seductively simple theories. There is no evidence in Asia, possibly no evidence anywhere, of long-run development taking place on a no-rent basis. Instead, the policy challenge is to construct and reconstruct institutions and politics in developing countries to sustain developmental rents and rent-seeking while attacking value-reducing rents and rent-seeking.

Mushtaq H. Khan (2000), Rent-Seeking as Process, in M.H. Khan and Jomo K.S. (eds) Rents, Rent-Seeking and Economic Development

Rent-seeking and inequality: thinking beyond Joseph Stiglitz


Nobel memorial prize winner Joseph Stiglitz

Inequality in the US is in part a political choice. This is the claim of Nobel memorial prize winner in economics Joseph Stiglitz, who has written extensively about it. Some of his views are outlined by Eideard here.

The claim is that inequality in the US has become self-reinforcing. The wealthiest are able to spend resources lobbying politicians, who then tend to support policies that favour them, such as tax cuts for high earners. If so-called ‘trickle-down’ economics fails to work, as indeed it has for many years, and dramatically so since the Great Recession, then the majority do not benefit from policies that favour the rich. The resources or economic ‘rents’ that accrue to top earners as a result of government policies promote further lobbying or ‘rent-seeking’. Thus rather than economic growth benefiting the majority, only those at the top make substantial gains, and the process continues. Continue reading

Rents, rent-seeking and the role of industrial policy in economic development

The role of industrial policy in helping countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan ‘catch up’ economically with the world’s rich countries in the post-war period has been extensively documented. Yet industrial policy, defined here as a government policy of targeting particular industries and technologies with support with the view that their rapid development has wider social and economic benefits in the national interest, has been far from a universal success story across developing countries. In fact, the failures probably outnumber the success stories in that only a few countries have made the successful transition from developing to rich country status. Rent-seeking processes have often been blamed for these failures, yet such studies ignore the pervasiveness of rents and rent-seeking in all modern economies. As will be discussed below, the desire to eliminate rents and rent-seeking is misguided and the creation of rents which support the development process has been key to the success of a number of newly industrialised countries (NICs).

In order for poor countries to catch up with the rich ones, they need to go through a process of rapid productivity growth and structural change, much faster than that prevailing in the technological leaders. Their companies need to learn how to use increasingly sophisticated technology as they move up the  ‘ladder’. At the early stages of development, innovation is probably less important than technological ‘learning-by-doing’: they must learn how to use technologies already in existence, rather than create new ones, although there is likely to be a degree of adaptation to local conditions, which could be seen as a kind of innovation.

Rapid transformation from being a poor country to a rich one will in almost all cases involve industrialisation, the structural shift from an economy dominated by agriculture to one of industry and services. Productivity growth needs to take place in all three of these sectors, while labour shifts from the primary to the secondary and tertiary sectors.

While technological backwardness and the dominance of agriculture offer potential for catching-up, this is far from an easy or automatic process. It is widely acknowledged that in countries such as Japan during the 1960s and 1970s, and South Korea and Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s, the state had a strong developmental role and used a range of policies to promote particular industries in the service of broader economic goals. The results were dramatic in terms of GDP and productivity growth, which were rapid over these periods. A second tier of countries, particularly in South East Asia, such as Malaysia and Thailand also grew rapidly during the late twentieth century, in the run-up to the Asian Crisis of 1997-8, when they entered deep recessions. Industrial policy was attempted in these latter two, but was not as extensive as in the NICs, largely due to political constraints, as they possessed a different balance of power between the state and various social classes which left a faithful copying of the industrial policies of the NICs very difficult.

Many other countries tried industrial policies during the post-war period, such as nations in Africa and South America, as well as South Asia. This often involved nationalisation of particular industries and import-substituting-industrialisation (ISI), in which domestic industries are protected from foreign competition by tariffs, as a form of infant industry protection. The aim is that companies should be sheltered from more productive rivals until they ‘grow up’ and are able to compete in terms of price, technological sophistication and product quality. This will occur if the protected firms and those they employ engage in learning-by-doing and especially if they can take advantage of economies of scale in production, both of which can stimulate productivity growth. However, many of these industries, while they made initial progress and contributed to fairly rapid growth in the aforementioned countries, never fully grew up to compete internationally and continue to produce for export, without government support. By contrast, in the successful NICs, initially protected industries did become internationally competitive after a period of protection. Government support in the form of subsidies, tariffs and preferential access to credit was withdrawn after a time, and the industries continued to grow and become more productive.

What was the difference between the industrial policy successes and failures? The economist Mushtaq Khan has argued that the view that differences in corruption and other forms of rent-seeking explain the contrasting fortunes is misleading, as corruption tends to be a structural feature of all developing countries. While all developing countries (and indeed probably all rich countries as well) suffer from rent-seeking, the major differences between successful late-developers and those countries which have not performed as well, are the rent outcomes produced by the rent-seeking processes.

The most successful of the late-developers such as South Korea and Taiwan had states that were able to carry out policies which targeted support at particular industries in a time-limited fashion: support was withdrawn both when sectors became competitive internationally and could engage in exporting and also when they failed to become competitive. One difference with less successful countries was that governments in the latter failed to withdraw support even when the sectors and firms didn’t to grow up to be competitive and such economies were left with substantial welfare losses and without the successful exporters that the NICs possessed. Khan argues that the outcome of failed industrial policies can be worse than simply ‘leaving it to the market’, due to both static and dynamic welfare losses. The first best outcome would be rapid development as a result of successful industrial policies, as in the East Asian NICs, but such policies, certainly in the way they were carried out in the NICs, are not possible everywhere. What countries need to do is to match their policies which aim to stimulate technological and industrial upgrading with what is possible given the balance of power between classes, which produce a particular political settlement. If particular social classes are able to prevent the withdrawal of state support to firms and sectors, even when these have not grown up and become competitive, then economic stagnation can result. In these cases, the rent outcomes will be negative. By contrast, a different balance of power within a society, from a strong state insulated from the such social classes, and/or one whose interests are aligned with capitalists providing kickbacks to the state, can produce positive rent outcomes which may outweigh the rent-seeking costs which are likely to prevail in all societies.

It follows that, certainly at earlier stages of development and during the catching-up phase of growth, states should focus on industrial policies that are achievable and, if none are, then political reform is important to enable such policies to be put in place. In short, state industrial policies should provide targeted and time-limited support to particular sectors, conditional on performance. If firms and sectors do not perform well and become competitive, ultimately on an international scale with export potential, then support should be withdrawn. The necessary political reform obviously goes beyond economics, and shows the importance of a political economy approach to development.