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Harmful rents and rent-seeking


What approaches are there to identify policy-induced harmful rents, what are their respective strengths and weaknesses, and how have donors used them?


The identification of policy-induced harmful rents has been approached mainly from a theoretical perspective. There is a lack of information on how donors have used those theoretical approaches. 


Corruption and rent-seeking are often used interchangeable, being corruption frequently considered one form of rent-seeking. However, the literature shows two important distinctions to make regarding the relationship between corruption and rents. One is that rent-seeking does not always involve corruption and vice versa. The relationship between corruption and rent-seeking depends on two main aspects: if there is personal gain by public officials from the rent-seeking activity, and if there is transfer of income or unproductive use of resources.

Two, the definition of rents as harmful does not always mean that there is corruption. The analysis of rents and rent-seeking has been dominated by an economic perspective focused on assessing rents according to their impact on efficiency and economic growth. Contrary to a political approach to rent-seeking, which tends to assume the negative impact of rents and their potential to derive from corrupt activities, economists classify rents as growth-retarding or growth-enhancing. The classification of rents as “harmful” or “not harmful” does not respond to the characteristics of the different types of rents but, rather, on the conditions and incentives that make them have a positive or negative impact on the economy.

The reflection on rents have evolved from a neoclassical economic approach of rents framed in an ideal competitive market to more realistic perspectives incorporating political elements influencing rents and rent-seeking, such as institutional frameworks and power structures. The identification of harmful rent-seeking tendencies is challenging due to their dependency on the circumstances in each case. Nevertheless, the literature identifies certain conditions with explanatory power to influence the outcome of rent-seeking as either positive or negative. Among those conditions are the state-market relationship, the influence of institutions and the social order, rent-seeking competition, collective action dynamics and the agency in pursuing rent-seeking. The impact of these aspects is assessed in this article in relation to frequency of rent-seeking activities and the potential of generating harmful rents.

An increasing acknowledgment of the presence of rents in every economic and political system is leading the reflection on rents and rent-seeking towards the question of how to manage rents to ensure they have a positive impact. Conditions, such as a political context free from political constraints that could prevent the implementation of rent management strategies, and capabilities like learning and policy experimentation capacity, are among the capacities considered necessary aspects for successful rent management. The transformation of the relationship between the public and the private sectors towards collaboration, mutual learning and accountability, and anticorruption tools such as integrity pacts are crucial in this regard. Nevertheless, successful rent management will also depend on how we define when they are successful, their effects in the context, and whether if those effects are wanted or not. 

Understanding rents

In economics, the term “rent” is defined as an “income that is higher than the minimum that an individual or firm would have accepted given alternative opportunities” such as the income that they would have received in a competitive market or the extra income that a civil servant might receive for the transfer of the right to a good or service that are not available on the open market (Khan 2000a, p. 5). For example, the extra money that a company is willing to pay above the rental price to rent an exclusive property in order to secure the lease against other interested companies would be the owner’s rent. Rents might come from different sources, such as monopoly profits, import and export quotas, extra income from subsidies or from owning a resource when the market structure for that resource is oligopolistic or there is price cooperation, agricultural price supports, occupational licensing, bribes operated through political mechanisms, or short-term super-profits made by innovators before competition enters their sector (enabled by patent rights). These excess incomes are generated through the creation, maintenance or transfer of rights to a service or good (Khan 2000a) in exchange for a payment for example in the form of money, debt or equity.

The fact that rents involve extra income implies the existence of strong motivations and incentives to maintain those rents, which might lead to corrupt or otherwise illegal behaviour. For instance, the creation of rents can be a way for governments to secure political support and favouritisms according to the principle ‘you help me and I will help you’ -reciprocity (Aidt 2016). The activities seeking to create, maintain or change the rights and institutions on which particular rents are based is known as rent-seeking (Khan 2000a). 

In the literature, both rents and rent-seeking activities have been mainly analysed from an economic perspective, in terms of their impact on efficiency and economic growth. However, the limitations of that approach and the need to distinguish between rents in different sectors have motivated the introduction of political elements in the analysis as explained next.

Economic approaches to rents

The economic analysis of rents has been dominated by two main traditions: classical and neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economic theory has analysed rents in terms of the efficiency of rents in relation to a model of perfect market competition, where the income that recipients in an industry would accept and the income that they would need to produce their goods or provide their services are equal (Buchanan, Robert and Tullock 1980). The efficiency of rents is assessed by looking at the immediate net social benefit (the difference between the social value of the output and its costs) associated with the rent and comparing it with the net social benefit achieved in its absence (Khan 2000b). For example, monopoly rents, created by entry barriers that allow firms in protected markets to charge higher prices for their products, are inefficient because they reduce the utility or social benefit of the product by producing less for a higher price. However, in a perfectly competitive market, where the prices cannot be manipulated by companies and are determined solely by the equilibrium between supply and demand, the social benefit is maximised. Thus, according to neoclassic economics, institutions and rights protecting rents should be removed to achieve efficiency and good economic performance. The way to do that is by regulating markets to secure free and fair competition. 

Classical economics has focused the analysis of rents on the impact of rents on economic growth, assessed by looking at the growth of output (or net social benefit over time) when there is rent compared to the growth achieved in its absence (Khan 2000b). Following the example of monopoly rents, if monopolies reduce the net social benefit, this can result in lower levels of investment in the economy, which will, subsequently, have an adverse effect on economic growth. In this sense, monopoly rents are potentially growth-reducing. According to Khan (2000b), this would happen when the monopoly is permanent. However, there are instances when rents can contribute to growth. If it is temporary, monopoly rents might motivate investments and incentives for technical progress needed for economic growth. 

Critique of neoclassical and classical economics’ analysis of rents

These economic approaches to rents have been criticised for not responding to a reality in which there is a great diversity of aspects affecting the effect of those rents on the economy (Khan 2000b).

Not all industries and sectors have the same conditions. On the one hand, certain types of rents can play an important role in helping particular sectors to exist and grow. For instance, in cases of scarce common natural resources, such as fishing waters, the allocation of rents – for example, through the creation of individual fishing quotas – would prevent overfishing and free exploitation of the resource out of self-interest (Khan 2000b). Another example is the green industrial sector since the development of renewable energy technologies requires private investment. Governments can facilitate this by creating opportunities for above-average profits on investment in that sector (Schmitz, Johnson and Altenburg 2013).

Along these lines, more recent economic analysis suggests that rents may be essential to ensure that markets work by creating incentives in the fields of information generation and monitoring (Stiglitz 1996).

Perhaps the most important role of rents is to incentivise innovation (Schumpetrian rents). Innovations that improve the use of capital, labour and technology will directly influence the efficiency of an economy. Technical innovations, innovations to work processes, in how to reduce capital and transaction costs, or in how to resolve costly social problems can be incentivised by awarding innovators a right to make windfall gains through limited competition during a certain period of time. If no such protection existed, all the costs of high risk investments by innovators would be borne by the innovators alone, while competitors would be free to use the innovations without contributing to the cost of its development. Patent laws therefore play a central role in incentivising innovation by allowing rents.    

On the other hand, Murphy, Shleifer and Vishny (1993) point out the negative effects of rent-seeking hampering innovation, thus, economic growth. According to these authors, innovation is specially damaged by rent-seeking because innovators are dependent on government goods, such as permits, licences or import quotes but they are not usually part of the government “elite”. The idea is that if established market actors have access to rents, they will act in a way that protects them. The fact that innovators do not have established lobbies or are part of the government might make them subject to heavy bribes and expropriation, and situate them in a disadvantage against established and well-connected companies in obtaining needed permits.

Political variables in the analysis of rents and rent-seeking

Conventional rent-seeking theories (Tullock 1967; Krueger 1974; Posner 1975) have mainly focused on the social costs of the resources used for rent-seeking activities and have paid very little attention to the value and diversity of rents produced by rent-seeking activities. Khan (2000c) argues that rent-seeking should be understood as a process where its effect on society depends on the social cost of the rent-seeking efforts (input cost) and on the social benefit or cost of the rents or rights produced (rent outcome or output rent) by the rent-seeking expenditure. Both the input cost and the output rent are determined by political and institutional variables.

Borrowing from the disciplines of institutional economics and political economy, two main political variables have been incorporated in the analysis of rents and rent-seeking activities: institutional frameworks and power structures. The understanding of these variables helps to explain why the impact of rent-seeking varies across countries and sectors.

Regarding the institutional framework, economists have compared rent allocation in democratic and autocratic regimes and find that, at a pure analytical level, institutions have indeterminate effects on rent-seeking and that there are other conditions determining the high or low cost of rent-seeking (input costs) (Khan 2000c; Congleton 1980). The rapid economic growth of some Asian countries suggests that the rent-seeking costs, independent of the political regime, also depend on the level of fragmentation in society and the strength of political and social factions. For example, where social factions are weak and the power is centralised, the institutions in an authoritarian regime might produce low rent-seeking costs (Khan 2000c) since the access to rents is limited. Where social factions are strong and the power of the state to suppress them is weak, the cost of rent-seeking is expected to be higher because excluded groups (rent-seekers with low chances to win in the rent competition) have power to change the rules of rent allocation and, therefore, of increasing the access and competition to rents. According to Khan (2000c), in those contexts democratic institutions might be necessary to achieve low rent-seeking costs. This is explained by the fact that the free flow of information in a democracy makes the process easier and faster (North 1990). Likewise, democratic institutions are likely to awaken lower levels of conflict from excluded groups to change the rent allocation rules and, therefore, lower secondary rent-seeking costs (expenditures to change the rent allocation rules by excluded groups) (Khan 2000c).

The aspect of the societal distribution of power plays a role in the allocation of rents and in the organization of rent-seeking activities. Regarding the allocation of rents, the outcome of rent-seeking activities often depend on two aspects: who is more powerful and can inflict the biggest costs on others during the competition for rents, and on the patrons’ incentives to allocate rents where there is more benefit for maintaining or strengthening power relations. 

Regarding the organization of rent-seeking activities, especially in developing countries, a significant part of the rent-seeking activities take place within patron-client networks. In these contexts, a significant part of the rent-seeking cost is spent within those networks through legal expenditures (like legal election expenditures) or through illegal expenditures (like payoffs to mafia bosses or to members of factions to retain their alliance), which maintains the organizational power of patrons (Khan 2000c). Likewise, large part of the rents produced by rent-seeking activities are distributed within those networks, which preserves a circular flow whereby “part of the income from rents created for patrons as rent-outcomes in one period provide the resources for inputs of rent-seeking expenditures on clients in the next period” (Khan 2000c, p. 19). 

Crony capitalism, practiced in both developed and developing countries, for example, presents a more horizontal distribution of power in rent-seeking. Crony capitalism involves the use of state power to hand out permits, grants or tax breaks over resources where the state exercises monopolistic control and generates profit through rent-seeking using this monopoly. The horizontal distribution of power in this case comes from the exchange in crony capitalism through which governments guarantee asset holders that their rights will be protected and, as long as their assets are protected, asset holders will continue to invest, allowing economic growth (Haber 2002). According to Haber (2002), in the absence of limited governments (those bound to respect political and economic rights through self-enforcing institutions), crony capitalism is the solution for governments to keep their commitment and do not use their power to abrogate rights. 

The outcome of rents

The rent-seeking literature has generally assumed that rents are always harmful. Evidence from developing countries in Africa and Asia, where rent-seeking is high and economic performance is poor, have influenced a negative perception of rent-seeking activities as wasteful expenditures to create or protect value-reducing rents (Khan 2000a). However, the economic growth of South East Asian countries in the last decades contradicts this argument and shows a more complex reality in which rents can be good or bad depending on the conditions that determine their value and the rent-seeking cost. From an economic perspective, rents can be both growth-reducing or growth-enhancing.

Following Khan (2000b), different types of rents have different growth implications. For example, the growth implication of monopoly rents varies depending on the market, technologies and companies involved. On the one hand, if monopolies reduce the net social product, this can result in lower investments in the economy and, therefore, in lower growth. On the other hand, according to Khan (2000b), the accumulation of profits by monopolistic companies may motivate more investment when there are deficiencies in capital markets.

Rents on natural resources, in contrast, often signal efficiency in resource allocation by using limited access or conditional use of a resource against unsustainable overexploitation. Schumpeterian/innovation rents, which reward innovation in finding and using information and are earned by innovators during the period of time between the introduction of an innovation and it successful diffusion, can enhance both efficiency and growth because they provide incentives to invest in research and innovation thus accelerating technological progress. Rents for education can play a crucial role in facilitating the process of learning and in improving the human capital and the development of technology, both needed to economic growth to occur, in developing countries.

Harmful rents and rent-seeking tendencies

In qualifying rents, it is important to distinguish between rent-seeking activities (the actions to access and create rents), the rents themselves and the outcome of rents (social costs and benefits). The rent-seeking activity might be negative (for example, bribery), but it might preserve a growth-enhancing rent (for example, a Schumpeterian rent supporting innovation). Or even if the rent-seeking activity has a positive value (for example, lobbying), the effect of the rent on the society might be negative (for example, a growth-reducing monopoly rent). It is worth keeping in mind, however, that sometimes rent-seeking activities, even those with a positive effect on the society like enhancing economic growth, can be used for a different purpose or respond to a hidden agenda. A corrupt government can, for example, choose to keep a rent deemed as positive in order to increase the opportunities to demand bribes (Khan 2000a). 

Regardless of the outcome and costs of rent-seeking, these activities can also be classified as legal (lobbying, contributions to political parties, advertisement) or illegal (bribery and coercion). The potential for rent-seeking motivations to lead to corrupt behaviour has been a matter of concern in the literature (Dal Bo 2006; Boehm 2007; Carpenter and Moss 2014; Razo 2015; Wu 2005).

The identification of harmful rents is challenging due to the confluence of different conditions and incentives that might alter the rent-seeking activities, the use and purpose of the rent itself, and the eventual outcomes of the rents in each case. In this section we understand harmful rents as those rents that lead to corrupt activities. The following are conditions identified in the literature with potential explanatory power regarding the frequency of rent-seeking activities and the potential of generating harmful rents, though the literature on this regard is rather scarce.

The role of the state in the economy

The state’s involvement in the economy and its impact on economic growth can have an impact in the frequency of rent-seeking activities and on the quality of the rents. Initially, the debate revolved around the size of state involvement (usually measured as the share of government spending as a proportion of GDP). 

The proponents of “small” government argue that limiting the influence of the state in the economy would reduce the amount of resources that governments can allocate in a discretionary manner to support particular interests, allowing the free market to allocate resources more efficiently to foster economic growth (Shleifer and Vishny 1998: Rose-Ackerman 2000).

It could be understood from this argument that the small involvement of the government in the economy would potentially reduce the rent-seeking activity and, therefore, the chances of generating harmful rents.

The defendants of “big” government argue that, due to the existence of market failures, the market cannot ensure an optimal allocation of resources by itself, and state intervention is therefore necessary to fix such failures. A bigger role of the state in the economy would increase the chances of investing in rent-seeking. According to Pasour (1983), how worthy rent-seeking efforts would be would depend on the observer’s own standard of value. Pasour (1983) suggests that the investment in rent-seeking is worthy if the sector in which it is intended to acquire rents from is a function of the state. In this sense, the bigger the role of the state in the economy, the more opportunities for worthy rent-seeking efforts would be. Nevertheless, the worthiness of rent-seeking activities is independent of the cost or benefits of the rents generated through those activities.

The lack of empirical evidence linking the size of government involvement with fostering economic growth led the debate towards the nature of government spending. Discretionary spending, for example, creates resources for rents that eventually may involve corruption, since it is decided by a small number of officials and can be channelled to specific groups.

Empirical studies show how the potential of corruption in certain sectors might affect the structure and size of the government budget (Delavallade 2006). For example, Tanzi and Davoodi (1998) find that the composition of government spending favours large-scale capital investment in infrastructure because such projects facilitate rent-seeking and the collection of bribes for public officials. Often, despite the government expenditure in those projects, they do not deliver the expected results, which suggests the potential existence of harmful rents. Studies show that certain sectors such as education are unattractive for rent-seeking, because the provision of education does not require actions in which rents can be easily generated like high technology inputs that could be provided by oligopolistic suppliers (Mauro 1998).


The fact that market competition is often seen as an anti-corruption tool because bribes are harder to sustain in a competitive market (Emerson 2006; Rose-Ackerman 1988 in Bliss and Di Tella 1997) might suggest that in a competitive market there are less opportunities to generate rents that might lead to corruption. The anti-corruption understanding is that when officials and companies are exposed to competitive pressures and operate under a common set of market rules, the incentives for corruption are reduced. When domestic markets are opened up to competition, public officials are forced to stop demanding bribes, because their electoral future depends on domestic firms staying in business to provide employment for the electorate and revenues for the state.

However, opposing arguments state that competition does not necessarily reduce corruption (Straub 2005; Bliss and Di Tella 1997), but, rather, corruption is absorbed into the system (Warner 2007). Moreover, some argue that the opportunities that capitalism offers to companies to increase profits and market share is an incentive for companies to seek the maximum assistance from governments to secure those benefits and to pay the lowest possible revenues and taxes (Wolff 2014), potentially enhancing rent-seeking. The framing of market competition within the political system and its structure may also make competition work in the opposite direction. Pei (2016) suggests that competition in an autocratic economy creates “collusive corruption” between business elites and public officials. 

Institutions and the social order

The social order and institutional setting in a society play an important role in the likelihood of achieving benefits through personal connections and power, important aspects in rent-seeking, or through economic productivity.

North, Wallis and Weingast (2009) distinguish between limited-access orders (or natural states) and open-access orders. Limited-access orders are those in which personal relationships among powerful individuals form the basis for social organisation. The logic of natural states is based on controlling violence through the protection of privileges and the creation of rents. In limited-access orders, rent-creation creates order and stability because elites know that violence will reduce their own rents so they have incentives not to fight. They also know that other elites have the same incentives, so “the political system of a natural state manipulates the economic system to produce rents that then secure political order” (2009: 18). In this case, rents play a social function.

In contrast, open-access orders are founded on the interaction of “equal” citizens. Open-access orders ensure that governments provide services and benefits to citizens and groups on an impersonal basis, without considering personal or political connections. Political officials are subjected to competition, which limits their ability to cement their advantage through rent-creation. Governments are, therefore, more transparent and everyone knows how laws and regulations are produced. In an open-access order the incentives for seeking rents are expected to be lower because they do not fulfil a social function. The opportunities for developing rents leading to corruption are also expected to be lower and publicly condemned since they go against the principles of equality and openness that characterises this social order.

The analysis of Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003) on how institutions create incentives for leaders to pursue good and bad public policy with the ultimate purpose of holding office offers some ideas on the conditions that might favour the use of rents by officials for private gain. The authors refer to four aspects: the size of the wining coalition (group of people that keep the leader in power), the strength of the loyalty within the group, the size of the selectorate (set of people whose endowments include those qualities or characteristics institutionally required to choose the government’s leadership and necessary for gaining access to private benefits doled out by the government’s leadership), and the source of state income.

According to the authors, when the winning coalition is small, the members of the coalition receive higher level of rewards than those outside the coalition. When the winning coalition is large the proportion of spending allocated to private goods to its members is smaller because more resources are put into providing public goods which benefit insiders and outsiders equally. The loyalty to the leader among the winning coalition members also affects the incentives for the use of rents for private gain. According to the authors, leaders of systems with strong loyalty spend less on the coalition and retain more for their own use or to protect their position of power. In turn, the strength of the loyalty is also affected by the size of the selectorate: loyalty is stronger in autocracies, where the selectorate is smaller, and weaker in democracies characterized by a bigger selectorate. Regarding the source of state income, the authors refer to rents from natural resources. When states are rich in natural resources, leaders do not need to rely upon the economic activity of the citizens to get the resources they need to reward their supporters. In these cases, when the wining coalition is small and the loyalty is strong the chances for leaders to expropriate societal resources for their own interest is higher. However, the weak loyalty in large winning coalitions prevents leaders from expropriating the resource rents for themselves.

Hamilton (2013) shows that, in high-income democracies, a higher ratio of electorally-dependent decision-makers to non-electorally-dependent decision-makers is associated with less rent extraction, understood as the ways in which agents can abuse their discretion. This is because electorally accountable and career-concerned office holders would be incentivised to minimise their short-term rent extractions and voters would be able to re-elect competent incumbents. 

Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) refer to “extractive” and “inclusive” institutions. Extractive institutions are institutions that produce limited prosperity and distribute that prosperity into the hands of a small elite. These institutions profit from being in a position where they can extract benefits from others rather than engaging in productive activity. The limited growth produced by extractive institutions requires political centralisation.

Inclusive institutions, on the other hand, are based on constraints on the exercise of power and on a pluralistic distribution of political power supported by the existence of the rule of law. The authors argue that inclusive political institutions tend to support inclusive economic institutions, which leads to a more equal distribution of income, empowers society, limits the benefits of usurping political power, and reduces the incentives of extractive attitudes. This analysis suggests that the probabilities of generating harmful rents might be lower in contexts with the characteristics of inclusive institutions.

Collective action and interest group politics

Rent-seeking activities often involve competition between groups to get favours and privileged rights (Krueger 1974). For groups to achieve that collectively, there are certain coordination problems that need to be overcome. 

The study of interest group politics has been inspired by the collective action theory developed by Olson (1965). According to Olson, the incentives for group action diminish as group size increases, so larger groups are less able to act in their common interests than smaller ones. The incentives to act in larger groups decrease because the individuals within them are less likely to get benefits from their efforts. According to Olson, when the group works to provide a public good (or as in this case, to have access to a rent), the likelihood of individuals trying to benefit from the efforts of the others without making any contribution (the free-rider problem) increases. The smaller the group, the larger the benefit and, consequently, the larger the incentives to act in the collective interest. 

The probabilities of having rent-seeking is related to the competition among groups for political influence to protect their interests. In this regard, Becker (1983) argues that the influence and outcome of the collective action depend upon how efficient groups are to produce political pressure and upon the group’s size. The efficiency of the group is measured in terms of its capacity to control free-riding.

Another aspect that may influence the way groups compete is the lack of knowledge on how far competing groups are willing to go to gain privileges and protect their interests. This uncertainty can raise a situation comparable to a prisoner’s dilemma: in a competition between companies that could be won with the payment of bribes, where it is unknown if the other companies engage in rent-seeking behaviour by paying bribes or not, the dominant strategy for any company, from a purely rational self-interest perspective, will be to pay bribes too.

Rent-seeking agency

According to Khan (2000c), the conditions under which rent-seeking results in the creation of socially valuable rents and rights, as opposed to socially damaging rents and rights, can depend on who is seeking the rent and how. He distinguishes between three scenarios:

  1. individuals or groups privately negotiate changes to rights without involving the state
  2. individuals or groups take the initiative in seeking rents, but it is the state which creates and transfers rights
  3. the state leads initiatives to create and change rights according to its own agenda

For the purpose of this analysis, we will focus on the second and third scenarios.

Rent-seeking by groups of individuals

Under scenario number two, individuals and groups try to influence the state by spending resources on rent-seeking activities such as bribing, lobbying or using political pressure.

According to Khan (2000c), to ensure the creation of value-enhancing rents requires that the economic and political power used to influence the state is proportional to the absolute value of the gain and loss. In the same way, in order to block value-reducing outcomes, losing rent-seekers (assuming that there is competition for the same rents) should have more influencing power when the value of their loss is higher than the value obtained by the winners. 

There are thus, two main conditions that are conducive to the creation of socially valuable rents in this scenario:

  1. the spending power of rent-seekers must be proportional to the size of their gains
  2. the political power of the rent-seekers must be proportional to their gain or loss because that ensures that for any new rent where the net social benefit is bigger than zero, gainers will have greater political power than losers who lose.

Political power relative to the state is based on the costs a group can inflict on the state through political actions (such as votes, strikes, or even war) if their interests are not considered. Failure in these conditions, according to Khan, will lead to the production of value-reducing rents.

Olson’s collective action problem helps to understand the reasons why rent-seekers sometimes cannot meet the two conditions required for the production of socially valuable rents: Incentives for free-riding are higher among big groups. As a result, big groups often find it difficult to have the support of the group’s members to exert necessary political power, as their influencing power is limited by the free-riding.

In response, the state may then create rents for small well-organised groups simply because they can spend more in lobbying even if the rights they seek are value-reducing for society. As rent-seeking through lobbying has an intrinsic (democratic) value disconnected from the value of the rent, the state creates rents for small well-organised groups instead than for big groups. In this case, the intrinsic value of rent-seeking through lobbying is perceived as greater than the value of the rents.

Rent-seeking by the state

Under the third scenario – where the state leads initiatives to create and change rights according to its own agenda – the state itself becomes the rent-seeker. The variables determining the types of rents produced in this case include the motives of public decision-makers, the transaction costs they face in collecting payoffs (for example bribes), the structure of the state that determines which costs and benefits are accounted for, and the power of individuals and groups to resist changes that damage them.

According to Khan (2000c), in this scenario, a first condition for value-enhancing rents to emerge is that state officials are value-maximisers who learn quickly from their mistakes. This condition involves state officials operating according to economic objectives. A second condition is that the costs of collecting bribes or taxes do not differ across groups.

The possibility that a self-interested, value-maximising state creates value-reducing rents to enrich itself rather than the society is reduced if the state has a long time-horizon to benefit from the rents. This means that the state does not act quickly to take advantage of the rents because it has to face social opposition for example, and it does not face different costs of collecting bribes or taxes from different groups. 

However, this condition is difficult to hold since the collection often requires costly investment in building contracts and trust. It is cheaper to collect a large bribe from a single person engaged in a large project than collecting many small bribes from a large number of people. According to Khan, this is why corruption often results in the allocation of rights to a few cronies of the regime, even when they are value-reducing for society.

A third condition for value-enhancing rents to emerge is that the state’s institutional structure allows all costs and benefits to be internalised. This means that the state’s calculation of the costs and benefits associated with granting access to a rent must coincide with the actual costs and benefits, causing no externalities.

When the state is fragmented and each agency tries to maximise bribes for itself, the outcome may be worse than under a centralised state, because agencies operate from a partial standpoint, separating themselves from the state plan. The value-enhancing considerations of rents for the entire state are therefore difficult to calculate and realise in such fragmented states. 

Finally, for the state to be able to produce value-enhancing rents, it would be necessary that those who get affected the most – the losers – do not have the power to politically resist the state. The reason behind this is obvious: if the state faces strong political resistance, the creation of those value-enhancing rents could be threatened, even if their outcomes are expected to be positive. The fulfilment of this condition often depends on the power of the clients of the state. Where its clients are weak, the state can dictate the terms (a feature of a patrimonial patron-client network); where its clients are strong, the state cannot hurt them (a feature of a clientelist patron-client network). The fact that powerful clients are able to resist change might lead the state to fail in creating value-enhancing rent-outcomes.

Preventing harmful rents and rent-seeking

Rents exist in every economic system. The question is not how to abolish them, but how to manage them (Schmitz, Johnson and Altenburg 2013). Some development agencies insist that developing countries should limit themselves to creating more efficient working markets and reforming their investment climate. However, the experience of Asian governments in the second-half of the 20th century reveals that market-enhancing policies are not enough, and that economic growth also requires governments to have rent management capabilities (Schmitz, Johnson and Altenburg 2013).

The capabilities required for successful rent management, however, have not yet been fully developed or explored in the academic literature, but some reflections on the issue point to the following ideas: a) to have the institutional and political capacity to ensure that non-performance is not tolerated for too long; b) the state has capacity and will to monitor and withdraw subsidies in underperforming industries; and c) the government has the capacity to learn and create the space for policy experimentation (Schmitz, Johnson and Altenburg 2013).

Moreover, there are certain necessary conditions for effective rent management. One is having a political context free from political constraints that could prevent the implementation of rent management strategies. After observing a diversity of outcomes from the implementation of rent management strategies in Asian and Latin American countries with different internal political configurations, Khan and Blankenburg (2009) conclude that the success of rent management strategies lies in the rent-management capacities of the state. For instance, following an example used by the authors, potentially dynamic infant industry subsidies can become growth reducing if they are allocated without the state capacity to monitor and to withdraw subsidies in underperforming industries. 

Another condition is that both private and public actors should be driven by long-term interests (for example, gains from economic growth over time) rather than by short-term interests (for example, personal enrichment or improving prospects at the next election) (Schmitz, Johnson and Alternburg 2013). Active cooperation between government and the private sector is necessary, and the quality of that relationship will determine in part the impact of rent management on society.

Rent-seeking tendencies and the potential of creating harmful rents is also determined by the relationship between the public and the private sector. Abdel-Latif and Schmitz (2011) identify factors that influence whether public-private alliances have a positive transformational effect or are abused for individual enrichment:

  • Organisational capacity of the private sector: the extent to which a certain sector can deliver visible results in terms of economic growth, exports and job creation will determine the willingness of policy-makers to support that sector.
  • Open public-private alliances: state-business relations driven by common interest and informed by common understanding of problems play an important role in initiating investment.
  • Upward accountability of policy-makers: accountability increases the likelihood of basing public-private relations on trust and collective interest.
  • Competitive pressure: the protection of internal markets might prevent the abuse of public-private relations. 
  • Monitoring of sectoral performance: monitoring and transparency on sectoral performance might prevent public-private relations being abused for private gain. 
  • Consumer protection laws and agencies: consumer protection mechanisms might reduce the likelihood of private-public initiatives that harm the public. 
  • Freedom of the press: reduces the risk of using public-private relations for private interests

Anti-corruption measures, such as integrity pacts (IPs) can also play a crucial role in preventing public-private relations potentially conducive to harmful rents. IPs, a collective action tool developed by Transparency International in the 1990s, are agreements between governments and bidders for a public sector contract. They are both a legal contract and a series of activities for their implementation. IPs prevent rent-seeking activities through bribery by establishing rights and obligations so neither side will pay, offer, demand or accept bribes, and bidders will not collude with competitors to obtain the contract (Transparency International 2013). They include the obligation of bidders to disclose all commissions and expenses paid by them to anybody in connection with the contract, or the obligation of government officials involved in the process to subscribe to ethical commitments consistent with the IP. IPs also establish credible monitoring processes and a process for determining the occurrence of violations with the corresponding sanctions.