Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Triumph of rent-seeking

In economics, "economic rent" has a special meaning of "income received by a factor in excess of its opportunity cost." From this came the famous concept of "rent-seeking", which is the allocation of resources to produce rent. In a competitive market rent is dissipated by competition, hence rent-seeking typically involves some type of market restriction.

The Doha Round has gone into stupor, collectively chloroformed by myopic trade negotiation. At the heart of this myopia is naked, insolent rent-seking. Rent-seeking cuts a wide multi-sectoral swath - industralists, farmers, union workers. This motley crowd is earning more than they would under free competition (sans subsidies, tariffs, and quotas). The difference is all rent, and they feel born to this entitlement. Buyers of foreign goods of course must contend with narrower choices and more expensive goods. Their well-being - and of those better able to supply them - be damned.

Rent-seeking is alive and thriving even in countries where free market liberalism is most widely accepted. Its forces are most entrenched in agriculture, the arena where the Doha round bit the dust.

Since WTO decisions are by consensus, I frankly see very little hope of resolution. Nearly every two-bit country like the Philippines is bringing a hardline stance to the bargaining table. It's only the big sexy countries that are hogging the headlines now. Even if their disputes could be resolved, there is a practically endless succession of countries waiting to show how stubborn they are.

Maybe I'm too pessimistic - negotations between rent-seekers may yet end up compromising on more liberalization, as demonstrated by the earlier GATT rounds, culminating in the Uruguay round. On this score I'll be glad to be mistaken.

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