Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More on "moral rent-seeking"

When group X successfully lobbies the government to pass a law that benefits X at the expense of everyone else, everyone pretty much agrees this is a problem. The behavior is known as rent-seeking.

It is advantageous for X to rent-seek because the costs of lobbying are outweighed by the benefits of getting the law it wants. In general, the benefits to X may be much less than what everyone else loses as a result of the law getting passed. However, because the costs of the law are dispersed widely among those outside X, they may not realize the extent to which they are getting screwed.

Moral rent-seeking, as I see it, differs from this picture in several respects. When X successfully lobbies to have phi-ing banned, this comes primarily at the expense of those who really like to phi. Those who are indifferent to phi-ing may not find their lives very different after the law passes. Those who do like to phi will likely suffer an extremely visible hit to their welfare.

In this way, moral rent-seeking does not benefit as much from the dispersal of costs that hides economic rent-seeking from our notice. But it benefits in another way, because if those who like to phi are in the minority (as they usually are) their costs will escape the notice of everyone else. Few will be immediately moved to protest on their behalf.

Indeed, because the new law only hits the welfare of those in Group Y -- the group that likes to phi -- it may be thought by some that the loss to their welfare is directly a function of phi-ing, and not a function of the law that makes phi-ing more difficult. Culturally, this will have the following effect: those in Group Y will have an even harder time making the case for phi-ing, because it will be easy for X and others to point at their depressed welfare and use that as evidence that phi-ing is a worthless, harmful activity.

This is how moral rent-seeking is able to mask its impact. Rather than dispersing its costs, moral rent-seeking imposes those costs on a narrow minority, whose lower welfare is then used as evidence that the law prohibiting their behavior was justified in the first place.

A tricky situation, indeed! Arguably, the drug war fits this pattern. So, to some extent, do laws making life more difficult for gay people. From this perspective, it looks like Group X has a pretty good racket going: criminalize some behavior most people don't care about, then retroactively justify the prohibition on the basis of facts about Group Y that are at least partially caused by the prohibition itself.

Again, I think the best way to deal with moral rent-seeking is to expose it for the racket it is: first, attack Group X's moral view (it's impossible to avoid this part of the debate.) Show that X's view of the good life is a bad one. Then reveal the value in the lives of those whose behavior has been criminalized, and show how that value is bound up with phi-ing. Show that the lives of the minority have value, too, and that it is unfair to make those lives more difficult just to benefit those with a faulty moral view.

If I'm right, then it follows that it will be impossible to reveal moral rent-seeking for what it is without questioning -- and ultimately undermining -- the moral views of, say, social conservatives. One cannot say: I'm agnostic about your moral view, X, but you can't restrict liberty. Laws restrict liberty in a myriad of ways. The problem arises when the restrictions are designed to benefit one group at the expense of everyone else.

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