The deeper causes of Britain’s economic stagnation

Mancur Olson is best known for his 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, in which he explained why small, concentrated interest groups are more likely to influence policy than large, dispersed groups. Olson’s work, together with that of other public choice theorists, exposed the mechanisms by which interest groups obtain special privileges from government, enabling them to extract ‘rent’ from the wider population. For example, a domestic industry might lobby politicians to introduce import tariffs or environmental regulations to shut out foreign competition. In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Olson contended that over time, concentrated interest groups – facing little public resistance – would come to dominate more and more sectors of the economy, stifling competition and innovation, misallocating resources, crowding out entrepreneurial activity and thereby bringing economic stagnation.

In the recent debate over Britain’s poor economic performance, there has been relatively little discussion of the underlying causes. Olson’s analysis provides a compelling explanation for many of the long-term structural problems now afflicting the UK economy. Much economic activity is now artificial in the sense that it is not the result of voluntary exchange but rather the consequence of state-granted privileges resulting in part from ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour by special interests.

Whole swathes of the nominally private sector are sustained by government regulation rather than consumer choice. Across the professions, occupational licensing restricts entry and raises fees, while at the same time, regulations create artificial markets for professional expertise. Complex tax rules create work for accountants and tax lawyers, for example. Vast industries such as renewable energy and waste recycling have been brought into being by combinations of regulation and subsidies. And major sectors of the economy are now heavily dependent on special privileges granted by the state at the expense of the wider population. Agriculture, energy and public transport are three obvious examples, but a strong case could also be made for numerous sectors including banking (bailouts, QE, etc.), pharmaceuticals (licensing etc.) and vehicle manufacturing (non-tariff barriers etc.). In this context, the success or failure of businesses is frequently dependent on political favours rather than satisfying customers’ preferences. Given such incentives, devoting resources to rent-seeking behaviour is entirely rational, even if it is at the expense of consumers and taxpayers and the health of the wider economy.

Clearly cutting public spending is an important part of reducing the pernicious influence of special interests. It will tend to reduce the share of the ‘private’ sector reliant on government subsidies. But there is little sign that the coalition understands the economic importance of dismantling the web of regulatory privileges enjoyed by concentrated interest groups. Indeed, several government policies have actually increased opportunities for rent-seeking.

Olson was generally pessimistic about the prospects for fundamental reform in stable Western societies. Only extreme events such as wars and revolutions were likely to break the hold of powerful interest groups over policy and restore economic dynamism (arguably West Germany after World War 2 is an example of this). Yet the success of Margaret Thatcher in tackling the unions suggests that it can be done. A similar strategy against ‘middle-class’ professions would be a good starting point.

For an illustrative case study of special-interest influence over policy, and its harmful economic effects, see The High-Speed Gravy Train: Special Interests, Transport Policy and Government Spending.

26 April 2012, IEA Blog

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