Rent-seekers

June 13, 2011

Chris Dillow has put up a post attacking Ed Milliband for failing to recognise that Labour’s biggest fault is its inability to recognise that capitalism produces a particular structure of power – one which can be abused in a fashion inimical to justice. If bosses are able to extract rents from the workers and raise their wages relative to those of the lowest paid, then this demands action, rather than the pathetic gestures Milliband favours.

This is true. What’s also true is that the reason this happens has nothing to do with capitalism and everything to do with power. Power, in state or capitalist form, permits rent-seeking – or extortion, if one wishes to get all melodramatic about it. And the State can be just as bad as the capitalists. Let me give you a couple of examples, in the form of a rant.

I’m currently running the UK’s annual celebration of wind energy, Wind Week. This involves putting up wind turbines in cities across the UK for a day or two to highlight the increasing role wind plays in our energy mix. Lovely stuff, and the precursor event I held in London last year came off quite nicely.

This year it’s been different, because councils are feeling the pinch and have become determined to extract revenue where they can. In Belfast, the Council have insisted that only their electrician can provide cabling in line with health & safety requirements – at a cost of £500 per day. In Glasgow, the Council insisted at the last possible minute that we give them £640 for the privilege of using a public space. In Newcastle, my home town, the Council insisted that we pay for a licence for distributing leaflets, and then required that the request for that licence be requested by a Board member, before demanding a final signature to a legal letter from myself. All to hand out fliers.

Broadly, this is rent-seeking behaviour from Councils desperate for funds. I’ve found it deeply frustrating. It’s worth noting that the two mainland Councils are controlled by Labour. And that – the instinct of the Labour Party to rent-seek from a position of power – is something Milliband is culpable for too.

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