What Is Rent Seeking in Economics, and What Are Some Examples?

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.

Key Takeaways

  • Rent seeking is an economic concept that occurs when an entity seeks to gain wealth without any reciprocal contribution of productivity.
  • “Rent” in rent seeking is based on the economic definition of the term, which is defined as economic wealth obtained through shrewd or potentially manipulative use of resources. A more colloquial way of describing this behavior is “privilege seeking.”
  • An example of rent seeking is when a company lobbies the government for grants, subsidies, or tariff protection.
  • Rent seeking comes in many forms from lobbying or donating funds.
  • For example, if you donate money but write it off on your taxes, it could be considered a form of rent seeking.
1:20

Watch Now: What Is Rent Seeking?

How Does Rent Seeking Work?

The concept of rent seeking was established in 1967 by Gordon Tullock and popularized by Anne Krueger in 1974. It evolved from the studies of Adam Smith, who is often regarded as the father of economics. The concept is based on an economic definition of “rent,” defined as economic wealth obtained through shrewd or potentially manipulative use of resources.

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, rent is the easiest to obtain of the three income sources and can require little risk.

Economic rent is the income earned from the utilization of resource ownership. Entities that own resources can lend them to earn interest rents, lease them to earn rental income, or utilize them 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.

One example of rent seeking is when a company hires lobbyists to encourage the government to change regulations to make it easier for them to earn profits, vs. trying to spend time and money on improving their goods in the marketplace.

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 legislations and actions manifest rent-seeking behaviors by offering economic rent with little or no reciprocity.

Business Rent Seekers

Business social service programs are typically designed to provide aid for businesses with the goal of fostering economic prosperity.

For example, businesses such as banks 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, bail them out of economic hardship, or create barriers to entry for others, it can achieve economic rents without any added productivity or capital at risk.

Licensing Requirements

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 lead 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.

Is rent seeking illegal?

In general, competition for rents is legal, regardless of any harm it may do to an economy. However, various rent-seeking behaviors are illegal, such as the forming of cartels or the bribing of politicians.

Why is rent seeking bad for the economy?

Rent seeking can make markets less efficient by creating price disadvantages for consumers or companies. Rent-seeking behavior can also create artificial bars to entry for new companies, stifling innovation.

Are landlords rent seekers?

Not generally. The use of the word “rent” can create some confusion here. The term “rent” in rent seeking is based on the economic definition of “rent,” which is defined as economic wealth obtained through shrewd or potentially manipulative use of resources. That said, it’s possible for landlords to engage in rent-seeking behavior.

The Bottom Line

Rent seeking is an economic concept that occurs when an entity seeks to gain wealth without any reciprocal contribution of productivity. An example of rent seeking is when a company lobbies the government for grants, subsidies, or tariff protection.

Rent seeking comes in many forms from lobbying or donating funds. For example, if you donate money but write it off on your taxes, it could be considered a form of rent seeking. Rent seeking interferes with the efficient operation of the free market, and it imposes unfair prices and barriers on individuals and companies.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Forbes. “What Is Rent-Seeking Behavior?

  2. Corporate Finance Institute. “Rent-Seeking.”

Take the Next Step to Invest
×
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.
Service
Name
Description