I recently gave an introductory Public Choice talk sponsored by Students for Liberty at the University of Ottawa. The next speaker was my friend Anne Rathbone Bradley, who was Skyping in from Washington. Anne gave a terrific talk about cronyism and rent-seeking that nicely complemented many of the points I’d made. But one of the side issues she raised really stuck with me, and I want to expand on it.
Anne connected cronyism (I hesitate to call it “crony capitalism”), rent-seeking, and income inequality in a way I hadn’t quite thought about before. The key to the connection is to realize some important truths about the political process.
The first truth is that cronyism is no accident. It is no accident that the U.S. economy has increasingly become one in which your connections to political power matter more for your ability to increase your wealth than does producing a product or service that consumers wish to buy. We are becoming what Ayn Rand deftly termed an “aristocracy of pull.”
The ability of some to get wealthier through political connections does trouble many on the political left, but they often argue that with better elected officials, or more ethical businesspeople, or limits on campaign contributions, we could dramatically reduce this sort of cronyism. What their argument misses is that as long as government gives out goodies, private-sector actors will find ways to get their hands on them. If you really want to take the money out of politics, you need to make it harder for politicians to hand out money.
For libertarians, the state is always little more than a dispenser of privileges to special interests. This is not an accident of who is elected or who is wealthy. Government privileges provide an easy path to profit for those who can capture them — and with none of the hard work of actually competing in the market. This is why many people, including those in the private sector, like the state.
The second important truth is that these political privileges are much more likely to be captured by those who already have financial and political power. Despite the fantasy believed by so many that government regulation and other interventions are all about constraining the rich and powerful in the name of the masses, in fact a great deal of government regulation is driven by the desires of those same rich and powerful to become more so. The more power we give to government, the more power we are giving to those with the money and connections to access political power. In other words, expanding the state gives more power and privilege to the powerful and privileged.
The last truth is that when private-sector actors seek to use political privileges to enhance their profits, they often do so by blocking smaller competitors’ access to the market, or by raising their costs of competing. When Walmart supports a higher minimum wage, it thereby favors raising the costs for their small mom-and-pop rivals. When taxicab companies defend their monopoly privileges, they intend to shut firms like Uber and Lyft out of the market altogether. When entrenched hairdressers demand that hair braiders be licensed, the established practitioners mean to raise their competitors’ costs or shut them out altogether.
When we put all three of these truths together, we get a story about the way in which those who already have wealth and power can and do make use of the state to block the upward mobility of their poorer, less-powerful potential competitors. Small-business owners, Uber and Lyft drivers, and African-American women who want to open hair-braiding businesses are trying to grab on to the bottom rungs of the income ladder and work their way up. These are the very people — start-up entrepreneurs and the working poor — that those critical of the market claim to care about.
In a world where government has all of these powers to intervene in markets, rent-seeking and cronyism are inevitable. Regulation will ensure that those who know the right people can tilt the regulatory playing field in their favor. The result will be a worsening of the income inequality that concerns so many. The rich will get richer through rent-seeking and cronyism, and they will do so at the expense of the poor and relatively powerless. If rent-seeking and cronyism worsen income inequality, and the source of rent-seeking and cronyism is the state’s ability to intervene, then a pretty good case can be made that freed markets will give us a world with less income inequality than the status quo.
Libertarians are right to point out that inequalities of income are not inherently bad. If the existing pattern of incomes were the result of a truly freed market (like in the famous, if simplified, Wilt Chamberlain example in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia), there would be no reason for worry. This is especially true because in a freed market, dynamic change would ensure that the same people do not occupy the same rungs on the ladder from year to year.
However, if inequalities are instead the result of a mixed economy in which those who already have wealth and power can enhance it at the expense of those with less — not to mention the consumers who lose out on the benefits of greater competition and lower prices, then libertarians are right to object and look for solutions. Of course, asking for more state action to combat state-driven inequalities is unlikely to work and very likely to make matters worse.
Thus, we can ground our arguments against government intervention in the market in our desire to reduce inequalities that are not the result of voluntary exchanges that benefit both parties.
Finally, this whole argument gives libertarians another reason to love the sharing economy of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, and the rest. Not only are such companies providing important competition for established firms and thereby lowering prices and bringing better services and more options to consumers, they are also part of the fight against the unearned privileges of the rich and powerful and the fight against politically driven, and therefore unjustified, increases in income inequality.
Classical liberalism needs to reassert its long-standing commitment to progressive goals, even as it rejects the means preferred by most so-called progressives today. We have an opportunity to bring new allies to our cause by recognizing the interrelationships among rent-seeking, cronyism, the sharing economy, small businesspeople, and income inequality. Let’s not overlook it.