What Is Rent Seeking?

Rent seeking (or rent-seeking) is an economic concept that occurs when an entity seeks to gain added wealth without any reciprocal contribution of productivity. Typically, it revolves around government-funded social services and social service programs.

The concept of rent seeking was established in 1967 and popularized in 1974. It is based on an economic definition of “rent” defined as economic wealth obtained through shrewd or potentially manipulative use of resources.

Rent Seeking Explained

Rent seeking evolved from the studies of Adam Smith, who is often regarded as the father of economics. It was introduced by Gordon Tullock in 1967 and later popularized by Anne Krueger. The concept of rent seeking is based on the economic definition of rent, which was one of three income sources identified by Smith.

Smith’s studies suggested that entities earn income from wages, profit, and rent. To create profit usually requires the risk of capital with the goal of gaining a return. Earning wages comes from employment. However, of the three income sources, rent is the easiest to obtain and can require little risk. Economic rent is the income earned from utilization of resource ownership. Entities that own resources can lend them to earn interest rents, lease them to earn rental income, or they may utilize their resources in other income-producing ways.

In general, the term economic rent has evolved to mean receiving a payment that exceeds the costs involved in the associated resource. Entities therefore, will take rent seeking steps to obtain economic rent that requires no reciprocal contribution of production. Oftentimes, this can mean using a particular status to gain economic rent from the government through social service grants.

Key Takeaways

  • Rent seeking is an economic concept occurring when an entity seeks to gain wealth without reciprocal contribution of productivity.
  • The term rent in rent seeking is based on an economic rent which was defined by economist Adam Smith to mean payments made in excess of resource costs.  
  • An example of rent seeking is when a company lobbies the government for grants, subsidies, or tariff protection.

Rent Seeking Factors and Examples

Rent seeking is a byproduct of political legislation and government funding. Politicians decide the laws, regulations, and funding allocations that govern industries and government subsidy distributions. These legislation's and actions therefore manifest rent seeking behaviors by offering economic rent with little or no reciprocity.

Governments have established funding for a variety of social service programs. Business social service programs are typically designed to provide aid for businesses with the goal of helping economic prosperity. Individual social service funding is provided for the goals of wellness and human welfare. Businesses can lobby the government for help in the areas of competition, special subsidies, grants, and tariff protection. If a business succeeds in getting laws passed to limit their competition or create barriers to entry for others it can achieve economic rents without any added productivity or capital at risk.

Individual rent seekers are also able to achieve economic rents when obtaining social service funding. Funds are offered through welfare programs, housing assistance, and Medicaid. Individual rent seekers can use their eligibility status for these programs to obtain funds from the government without any reciprocal contribution.

Occupational Licensing

Lobbying for the lessening of occupational licensing requirements is another very specific example of rent seeking. Doctors, dentists, airline pilots, and many other fields require licensing to practice. However, in many U.S. states, this licensing process is expensive and time-consuming. Often, regulations exist due to past lobbying efforts from existing industry members. If certification and license obligations prevent newcomers from competing, fewer professionals may share the revenue. Thus, a more significant portion of money accrues to each existing member without additional economic benefit. Also, since limits to competition can be a driver for prices, consumers may be required to pay more.

Issues Arising from Rent Seeking

Rent seeking can disrupt market efficiencies and create pricing disadvantages for market participants. It has been known to cause limited competition and high barriers to entry.

Those that benefit from successful rent seeking obtain added economic rents without any added obligations. This can potentially create unfair advantages, specifically providing wealth to certain businesses that leads to greater market share at the detriment of competitors.

Lastly, rent seeking wealth is typically a function of taxpayer funding. These tax revenues are used to provide economic wealth for rent seekers but may or may not improve the economic climate or produce any benefits for taxpayers-at-large. This can lead to disparaging funds that lack regeneration and require higher taxes in the future.