Mike Munger’s new essay on rent seeking is superb. Mike is a fluid and persuasive writer, so he does a great job of explaining some of the hardest-to-understand aspects of rent seeking. In particular, the competition for politically-distributed resources means that people will use up resources to get the political goods. That competition usually means that more resources are expended in the chase than are actually available for the winning. That’s how rent seeking destroys resources.
In particular I like this passage:
But in our political system, we have an industry dominated by two firms, Republicans and Democrats. Together they have a 99 percent market share. They have undertaken actions at the state and national levels to make it practically impossible for any other party to enter. This system forecloses good competition, the kind that raises new ideas or asks embarrassing questions. We have been fooled into thinking the system is competitive, because we constantly see vigorous rent-seeking competition for access to the public purse. This bad competition is an expensive gladiatorial combat, where Congress keeps a lot of the ticket receipts. Some of the rest of the spending is simply wasted building those expensive office suites on K Street and using the time of those lobbyists who could be doing something more productive.
Markets, on the other hand, encourage raising new ideas and allow for embarrassing questions to be asked, and if not answered to the satisfaction of, say, shareholders, market values reflect that fact.
I also recommend the podcast with Mike at the bottom of the essay.