The Wall Street Journal carries a review by Trevor Butterworth of The Enlightened Economy by Joel Mokyr, former editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. This is a book which aims to explain why the industrial revolution happened in Britain before it happened anywhere else. Thoughts on the book itself will follow, perhaps. Right now, Iâ€™m more worried about the review:
The reason for Britain’s exceptionalism, Mr. Mokyr says, lies in the increasing hostility to rent-seekingâ€”the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealthâ€”among the country’s most important intellectuals in the second half of the 18th century. Indeed, a host of liberal ideas, in the classic sense, took hold: the rejection of mercantilism’s closed markets, the weakening of guilds and the expansion of internal free trade, and robust physical and intellectual property rights all put Britain far ahead of France, where violent revolution was needed to disrupt the privileges of the old regime.
This is the first time Iâ€™ve seen â€˜rent-seekingâ€™ defined as â€˜the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealthâ€™. Itâ€™s a bad definition, since we naturally tend to think of â€˜political powerâ€™ as something wielded by government; this particular definition, then, will lead us to think of â€˜rent-seekingâ€™ as primarily an activity of government. Which it ainâ€™t. Things like â€˜robust physical and intellectual property rightsâ€™ may privilege any suitably placed individual or private company: Sky TV, for example. But letâ€™s take the main point as given: at one time, Britain was comparatively liberal, France was comparatively regressive. And France did indeed experience revolution. Of course, youâ€™d think that revolution might allow France a bit of a catch-up opportunity. Apparently not:
Such political upheaval in Europe, notes Mr. Mokyr, disrupted trade, fostered uncertainty, and may well have created all kinds of knock-on social disincentives for technological and scientific innovation and collaboration with business. Much as we might deplore too many of our brightest students going into law rather than chemistry or engineering, it is not unreasonable to think that many of France’s brightest thinkers were diverted by brute events into political rather than scientific activism (or chastened by poor Lavoisier’s beheading during the Revolution).
Admit it, people, the real thesis here is: heads the Anglos win, tails the Euro-weenies lose. I note also that â€˜Franceâ€™ and â€˜Europeâ€™ are treated as synonyms, but hey.
I suppose itâ€™s mostly fairly difficult to untangle the prejudices of the reviewer from the subject, where the subject itself is a representation in writing of someoneâ€™s thoughts, but I suspect this particular review gets close to the limiting case: i.e. the case where everything you see is the prejudice of the reviewer. Stock tropes only; nothing substantial or falsifiable to be given away.
Incidentally, I think thereâ€™s a way to understand the Murdoch publications paywall: itâ€™s journalism going Galt. Theyâ€™ll come out as they went in; how else could it be? I think it’s a shame Rand had the first-handers hide themselves away in the Rockies, though; I’m imagining a South American tepui, Conan Doyle Lost World style.
Update: I’ve realised that there is a reading of ‘the use of political power …’ which brings it more into line with how rent-seeking is usually understood. This is the reading in which political power (of government) is held ready for someone outside government to make use of: government as a utility, if you like. Even on this reading, I still think it’s a poor definition. It’s understood that it costs a petitioner something to engage with government – hence there’s an efficiency argument to be made in connection with rent-seeking – but terms like ‘use’ and ‘manipulate’ suggest that policy can be flipped on and off like a light. So, how would I define ‘rent-seeking’, you might ask. Perhaps like this: rent-seeking is the attempt to influence public policy in search of policy privilege.
And a welcome to readers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also.