Just after I post a riposte to Charlie Whitaker he goes and writes something else on the same topic. Nothing really new in it. Here's the conclusion, which is the only part of his argument that matters:
There may be a difference between a defence contractor petitioner and a homeless person petitioner that isn’t to do with their relative advantages. Not all vote getting is vote grubbing. To approach government and ask for something isn’t to rent-seek.
Yes. It. Is. Absolutely, it is.
Here, I think, is Whitaker's problem. He presents "government" as some philosopher-king type of institution that has independent resources to distribute to the public according to need. This is completely false, and by "completely" I mean that it is the exact opposite of truth. All government funds come from somewhere and are disbursed somewhere else. In that transaction some benefit while others suffer. The fact that all government expenditure is redistribution in some form or other means that anyone who petitions the government for those funds (or other protections) is, in fact, seeking rents. There may be more or less egregious examples of this of course, and if Whitaker wants to have a normative discussion about which groups ought to benefit and which ought not I'm happy to oblige. But in positive terms, at their root the homeless and the defense contractor are one and the same in the ends, if not their means. (I should note that the term "rent-seeking" does not imply anything about means, only ends.)
Just think about the words themselves. Suppose a homeless group petitions Congress for aid. What might they seek? Very near the top of the list would be housing at subsidized, erm, rents. And who will pay the rent of the homeless? Someone like the defense contractor. Perhaps this is a just result, as Whitakyer claims, but that's beside this point. Whitaker cannot claim that this is not an example of one group using the power of the state to redistribute wealth to themselves from others.
(Or if you prefer it the other way around, the defense contractor may petition Congress for tax breaks on the land needed to build war machinery. It's the same principle.)
This is not so hard to understand.