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".