An Absurd Tax on our Fellow Citizens: The Ethics of Rent Seeking in the Market Failures (or Self-Regulation) Approach

Joseph Heath lumps in quotas and protectionist measures with cartelization, taking advantage of information asymmetries, seeking a monopoly position, and so on, as all instances of behavior that can lead to market failures in his market failures approach to business ethics. The problem is that this kind of rent and rent seeking, when they fail to deliver desirable outcomes, are better described as government failure. I suggest that this means we will have to expand Heath’s framework to a market and government failures approach. I then try to defuse objections that as a government failure, rent seeking may not appear relevant to what managers ought to do. Solving this conceptual issue will also give us an excuse to revisit a separate conceptual issue: the normatively thick conception of “rent” and rent seeking behavior that some use. This normatively thick conception is problematic, I argue, and I offer the beginnings of a novel, normatively neutral conception that is useful for our purposes in making the ethics of rent and rent seeking behavior more than a merely trivial exercise.