Friday, August 13, 2010

Politics Is Not the Dispassionate Quest for Equality

. Friday, August 13, 2010

What on earth is Charlie Whitaker going on about?

This is the first time I’ve seen ‘rent-seeking’ defined as ‘the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth’. It’s a bad definition, since we naturally tend to think of ‘political power’ as something wielded by the state; this particular definition, then, will lead us to think of ‘rent-seeking’ as primarily an activity of government.


No, we don't naturally tend to think of 'political power' as something wielded by a government-less state. We naturally tend not to think of "the state" as some disembodied, apolitical, technocratic, interest-free institution. Instead, we tend to think of "the state" as an aggregation of competing interests, all of which seek to modify policy in ways that suit their own, erm, interests. How else could we think of it? Please let's all agree that Rousseau's concept of "general will" has no basis in positive theory or empirical evidence.

Besides, what other way has Whitaker ever heard "rent-seeking" defined? I can't even imagine (and I've tried), and he doesn't say.

Whitaker expands in a later post:

Let’s consider some minimal state which is constituted only of its own citizens (as citizens) and which has authority to enforce only that which has been agreed on by citizens. Now let’s consider two statements:

(1) The citizens have grouped together to enact legislation to achieve what each of them considers to be a mutually advantageous settlement.

(2) The citizens have ‘outflanked the market and manipulated public power for private gain’.

You don’t have to widen the scopes of the constituent terms much to get to a point where these two statements are as good as indistinguishable. That is, to say one is to say the other.


This is a true statement, but with a meaning that I don't think Whitaker intends to suggest. The necessary implication is that it is perfectly legitimate for democratic bodies to use the tool of state power to benefit the majority at the expense of others. Let's consider another minimal state which is constituted only of its own citizens (as citizens) and which has authority to enforce only that which has been agreed on by (a majority of) its citizens. I.e., a "democracy". (Perhaps Whitaker has heard of it.) Now let's consider two statements:

(1) The 51% of citizens who would benefit from economically disenfranchising the other 49% have grouped together to enact legislation to achieve what each of them (the 51%) considers to be a mutually advantageous settlement.

(2) The 51% of citizens have 'outflanked the market and manipulated public power for private gain'.


Is this not equivalent to what Whitaker has stated? He doesn't seem to think so. In his example, he seems to think the action taken is legitimate. I doubt he would think the same of my example. Or maybe he would, it's hard to tell. In comments to the latter post he writes:

But what I’m getting at here isn’t so much the design of institutions; it’s the crappiness of a political discourse that lumps homeless people in with defence contractors as ’special interests’ or ‘clients’. ...

I suppose I might agree that the best way to defuse the rhetoric is to say, yes, homeless people are rent-seekers; now let’s talk about what we’ll do for them. Your defence contractors can wait. Then again, I’m tending to think it concedes far too much.


Concedes too much to what? Leaving aside the fact that homeless people and defense contractors are seldom in direct opposition, I very strongly doubt that either of their lobbyists would argue that they do not represent an interest group. To the contrary, they would be happy to do so and explain why their group is more worthy of attention than some other. That is how democracy works, after all. The fact that one group indubitably has more resources than the other doesn't change the fundamental relationship at play.

So what Whitaker is trying to do is to criticize a positive observation about politics -- that it is fundamentally about competing interests -- in favor of a normative view of what politics should be about. His view of the latter can easily be summed up as "politics should favor my preferred interest groups, without having to be so crass as to admit that it does". Why? Because it should, that's why.

Anything else would be "crappy political discourse".

2 comments:

Charlie Whitaker said...

Is this not equivalent to what Whitaker has stated? He doesn't seem to think so.

No, it's not equivalent: you've restricted the scope of 'the citizens'.

In his example, he seems to think the action taken is legitimate.

I'm fairly sure there's no explicit judgement given.

I doubt he would think the same of my example.

Perhaps not, but changing the scope is exactly what makes the difference; this was what I was trying to get at here. Joffe makes use of an unrestricted statement: i.e. 'manipulation of public power for private gain'. Whose power? Whose private gain?

So what Whitaker is trying to do is to criticize a positive observation about politics -- that it is fundamentally about competing interests -- in favor of a normative view of what politics should be about.

Shouldn't we have a view of what politics ought to be about (understood as 'how politics ought to be conducted'? And isn't conceiving of politics as being 'about competing interests' in itself a value judgement?

His view of the latter can easily be summed up as "politics should favor my preferred interest groups, without having to be so crass as to admit that it does". Why? Because it should, that's why

I think that's probably an unfair reading.

It's good that someone takes an interest!

Kindred Winecoff said...

Thanks for stopping by, Charlie. I'm happy you did, and I'd love to continue the dialogue. But right now I think we might be talking past each other.

No, it's not equivalent: you've restricted the scope of 'the citizens'.

I have not. I include defense contractors, as well as homeless and everyone else, as citizens.

I'm fairly sure there's no explicit judgement given.

Erm, bullshit. You've been open and honest about your normative preferences. I'm merely extending them to a context that your logic implies, but that might offend your sensitivities.

Perhaps not, but changing the scope is exactly what makes the difference; this was what I was trying to get at here. Joffe makes use of an unrestricted statement: i.e. 'manipulation of public power for private gain'. Whose power? Whose private gain?

Exactly. You are trying to stretch a positive observation (politics is about competing interests) into a normative judgment (politics should be about some interests winning out over others). See?

You continue to say explicitly that we should emphasize a normative politics, then immediately accuse me of an unfair reading when I point out that that is your view! Pardon me, but why should I apologize for pointing out your own views to you?

My take is that positive politics is distinct from normative politics. In the positive sense, rent-seeking from the homeless is equivalent to rent-seeking from defense contractors. In the normative sense, the homeless *may* have a different claim to aid than the defense contractor, but that judgment depends on an entirely different conversation than the one we're having.

And I'm still curious as what other way you've heard the term "rent-seeking" applied.

Anyway, I'm very happy to hear from you, and I'd be happy to keep this going on our respective blogs, comment sections, or e-mail.

Politics Is Not the Dispassionate Quest for Equality
 
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