Monday, March 3, 2014

We’ve become a nation of rent-seekers

In political economist Mancur Olson's pathbreaking book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, published in 1982, he argued that a country's economic stability ultimately leads to decline as it becomes increasingly dominated by organised interest groups, each seeking to advance their interests at the expense of others.

By contrast, countries that have a collapse of the political regime, and the interest groups that have coalesced around it, can radically improve productivity and increase national income because they start with a clean slate in the aftermath of the collapse. Examples are the rapid growth of postwar Germany and Japan, as Wikipedia reminds us.

Professor Ross Garnaut has argued that Australia is unlikely to see another era of extensive micro-economic reform because of the growth in rent-seeking behaviour since the days of the Hawke-Keating government.

What these days passes for the political debate seems to be dominated by ''distributional coalitions'', in Olson's phrase, arguing for ''reforms'' from which the chief beneficiaries would be their good selves, or desperately opposing government reforms that would impose even the most modest sacrifice on their members.

What gets me is how blatantly self-seeking our lobby groups have become. It is as if the era of economic rationalism - with its belief that the economy is driven by self-interest - has sanctified selfishness and refusal to co-operate for the common good.

Another explanation may be the growth of a lucrative rent-seeking industry. These days far more people make their living lobbying for interest groups than did so in the 1980s.

When your livelihood depends on convincing your clients their money is well spent, it's hardly surprising these ever-multiplying industry groups, corporate ''government relations managers'' and freelance lobbying firms make so much noise and are so untiring in their efforts to extract concessions from government.

The relationship between elected governments and bureaucrats, and the professional lobbyists, is unhealthy. In an ever more complex world, governments seek to consult ''stakeholders'' before implementing policy changes.

But some stakeholders - those that spend most on lobbyists - are more equal than others. And too many politicians, private-office advisers and bureaucrats retire as gamekeepers to become poachers. The fact that ex-Coalition lobbyists do better under Coalition governments, while ex-Labor people do better under Labor governments is a sign that this is not an innocent, arms-length, information-gathering exercise.

Meanwhile, the business of opposition has degenerated into automatic opposition to any and every unpopular government decision, even though this requires parties to turn their rhetoric on its head when they move from opposition to government.

Labor's attempt to exploit public anxiety over the Abbott government's inability to solve the deep-seated and long-running commercial challenges faced by hard-pressed manufacturers and airlines, while advancing not a shred of credible alternative policy, is despicable. Just as despicable as when Tony Abbott did it to Labor.

It's finally dawning on people that major and genuine reform requires a degree of bipartisanship at the political level and a spirit of give-and-take on the part of powerful interest groups. But these prerequisites are further away than ever.

Instead what we get is lowest-common-denominator politics from the pollies and rent-seeking posing as ''reform'' from the interest groups. This is particularly true of business lobby groups - the big miners, the financial services sector, the hotels and the registered clubs, for instance - because they have the most money to invest (and I do mean invest) in rent-seeking.

There does seem to be one spark of potential progress, however. Perhaps because of its organic links to big business, the Abbott government seems to have realised something Labor never did: giving in to rent-seekers doesn't make you any friends, it just makes things worse.

Yielding to my pressure for a concession never satisfies me, it just shows me you're an easy touch and prompts me to think of something else I want. Meanwhile, giving me a lolly just makes my rivals envious and prompts them to demand theirs. Bad inevitably leads to worse.

Joe Hockey and Abbott have been courageous in ignoring the begging bowl of the least competitive end of manufacturing and, it seems, Qantas. It's too early to say whether this constitutes a consistent attempt to turn back rent-seeking or just prejudice against certain industries but not others - though it would be idle to expect absolute consistency of principle from any flesh-and-blood government.

The way Arthur Sinodinos has been cutting back investor protections at the behest of the greediest industry of them all - financial services - under the guise of reducing ''red tape'' raises the possibility that rent-seeking via the budget is verboten, but not rent-seeking via regulation. We shall see.