December 07, 2009

One Major Source of Our Problems

By Dr. William Luckey *
An economist friend of mine, who is a Salesian Brother, recently gave a lecture at Oxford University reminding us of one major problem that is neglected by many economists and by papal writings on economic things. Yet this just might be the biggest problem that we are facing. All attacks on the free market by Catholics saying that it fosters greed, etc., have been shown to be nonsense, and that greed resides in the human heart. I learned this many years ago in the philosophy courses I took at a good Catholic university as an undergraduate. You would think that our clergy would also have learned it as well. Both the rich and the poor can be just as greedy.  

But the “morality” industry, that is, those who make their living, so to speak, arguing that the cause of our financial problems is the lack of morality inherent in the free market, have missed the major point made by my Brother colleague: the problem of “rent seeking.” Famous economists Robert B. Ekelund and Robert D. Tollison define rent seeking as: “The behavior associated with the use of scarce resources in the pursuit of monopoly profits created by government action; the process of using scarce resources in an effort to obtain rents or a transfer of wealth.”[1] A rent is the payment to a factor of production such as land, labor, capital and/or entrepreneur skill in excess of its opportunity costs.[2] Basically a rent is profit. What the lay person calls rent, as in apartment rent paid to a landlord, is just one type of rent. And the rent paid becomes a rent only when the money paid for the apartment exceeds the cost of maintaining it and repaying the money loaned to build it. (This is one of the problems of rent control—government rent ceilings are usually too low to maintain the building so the owner has to abandon it and chalk it up a loss. The result is a slum.)

Notice that the definition given above includes government. How this works is that in exchange for financial and other support in future elections,[3] government leaders have an open door for those in business or unions who seek monopoly privileges. The privileges must be licensed by government, or the goods or services of the rent-seeking company will be open to competition, which will allow competition to drive down the prices charged for a similar product or force the rent-seeking company to improve the quality. Take the example of General Electric, oddly the company for which Ronald Reagan used to be a spokesman. GE is a failing company, but it also owns NBC. It appears that GE president Jeffrey Immelt got a lump of money from the government TARP funds, which was only intended to go to banks. It was given to GE’s financial arm, but since GE is not a bank, none of the strings attached to the TARP money banks received were applied to General Electric. GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt is a frequent visitor to the White House, and I am sure they have a coffee cup with his name on it. You can see the rent seeking here as NBC and MSNBC, owned by GE, were almost news outlets for the Obama campaign and now for his administration, bitterly attacking Obama’s critics. In addition, GE is a big supporter of the cap in trade (cap and tax) bill. One of the reasons behind its support is that it would stand to manage billions of in cap and trade contracts if the deal goes through. Not coincidently, Mr. Immelt is on the Board of Directors of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which is the most powerful of the Fed banks.

I am not picking on GE, but I am attacking the notion that the government has a role in managing the economy, because this opens the door to groups and companies looking to get a hand on government monopoly privileges and your tax money, instead of earning it the hard way. Take the current “Jobs Summit” now being held in the White House. All of the Obama cronies are there: big unions, some big corporations, all looking for handouts or privileges. Noticeably missing was the US Chamber of Commerce, a public critic of Obama’s economic policies, and other representatives of small business owners—small business which employs most American workers. It was reported that when one person at the conference told the President that if he wants to help the growth of jobs, do not pass the health care plan, Obama replied that “we” are going to pass it whether you like it or not.

All this is rent seeking, and government is the middleman in the process. If the government were strictly prohibited for touching business or labor in the country, these folks could not get anything from it. Sadly, Catholics are among the biggest supporters of government’s running of the economy; therefore, Catholics are big supporters of rent seeking to the detriment of the economy and the common good.

[1]Robert B. Ekelund and Robert D. Tollison, Microeconomics, 3rd edition (New York: Harper-Collins, 1991), 676, my italics.


[3]In other countries, outright bribery.

Dr. William Luckey is the former chairman of the department of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College, where he is currently a professor.  He holds advanced degrees in Business, Economics, Political Philosophy and Systematic Theology. He was married in 1971, has four children and 12 (soon to be 13) grandchildren, and is a Lay Dominican.

You can visit his blog entitled Catholic Truths on Economics at:

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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