A bit more on rent-seeking, to see if I can draw out what I’ve been trying to get at. There’s the claim that any person who petitions government is acting, at least in part, out of self-interest. A tendency to rent-seek, it’s said, may simply be a fact about people generally; hence everyone who approaches government should be regarded as a would be rent-seeker. (Rob made this position clearer in comments on the last post on this.) A person holding this view may go on to say that if there’s a normative evaluation to be carried out, that evaluation should take into account not the petitioner’s motive but the petitioner’s situation.
Consistent with this is the view that any legislator may be party to a rent-seeking transaction. The way it goes is, a person petitions government, looking for some special benefit; the self-interested legislator replies (he’s only human): sure, but what are you going to do for me?
I think what’s missing here is an acknowledgement that some forms of petition are desirable and some aren’t. It’s not OK to offer a bribe; it’s not OK for a legislator to take a bribe. Naturally, we may have laws that forbid bribery.
Conversely, it’s not only OK to vote, it’s considered desirable; it’s also considered desirable for legislators to campaign for votes, to write manifestos, etc. Some countries even have laws that mandate voting.
Our designs for our institutions can only anticipate certain cases; any framework of laws will have a normative underpinning. We may think that it’s wrong for a legislator to accept favours from big business after he or she retires as a legislator, even though no law forbids it. We may also think that it’s wrong for an organisation to invent a new incentive along those lines. Conversely, we encourage people who want to go into politics to first acquire an education, experience in business, etc., even if no law requires it. We also like it when voters are well informed. There’s a gradient of desirability, from immoral graft to virtuous example-setting.
If you bundle up all of these activities into something called ‘rent-seeking’ – choosing from then on to look at the situation of petitioners to the exclusion of the character of their petition – you close the door on something important. There may be a difference between a defence contractor petitioner and a homeless person petitioner that isn’t to do with their relative advantages. Not all vote getting is vote grubbing. To approach government and ask for something isn’t to rent-seek.