Don Marti

Fri 23 Jan 2009 12:31:59 PM PST

Rent-seekers, debate framing, and so-called mandates

Rent- seekers are sneaky. They have to be, because their job is to steal things from the public, either spread out among enough taxpayers that it's not worthwhile for any one taxpayer to put in the time to stop it, or quietly enough that people don't complain.

For the second route, part of being sneaky is to frame the debate. Rewrite your description of what you want to steal in terms that make it sound like if you don't get it, you're losing something you already own.

Let's say that one of those Rent-to-Own stores that sells electronics under a confusing, one-sided contract got a big idea. Hey, we're going to get a piece of the government market for LCD monitors!

Wait a minute, though. The government has a competitive bidding process for electronics, and no bureaucrat is going to commit to paying two grand for a $300 monitor. Even if you could bribe him, somebody is going to look at the books eventually.

Looks like life is tough for our fine-print-slinging rent-to-own sales weasel. But all is not lost. Next step: hire a fake-Libertarian rent-seeking lobbying operation out of Washington, D.C. Now you can re-cast the corporate welfare you want as having the freedom not to get your rightful corporate welfare, I mean property, taken away from you.

Put some Libertarian-sounding spin on the rent-to-own monitor plan, and now it's: There's a Regulatory Mandate to buy only Open Bid Monitors! Why can't we have Fair Competition betwen the Open Bid model and our business model?

Say it often enough, and be sure to blur the line between the product and the contract under which it's being offered, and you can even bamboozle otherwise well-informed people. Any proposal that would give the government real negotiating power with a software supplier becomes the feared "open source mandate."

Pretty powerful stuff. Giles Bowkett writes, "Republican Presidents and legislators use Libertarian arguments to advance policy decisions which benefit business, then conveniently forget those same arguments when it comes to issues of government debt or unnecessary military spending."

But that's not the real problem with Libertarians. The real problem is that most of the Libertarians you run into are either just plain rent-seekers, or not very smart wannabe-Libertarians who think that rent-seeking is Libertarian. The intellectualproprietarians disguise themselves as Libertarians all the time, and the real Libertarians allow it, like those ants that get their nest taken over by moocher ants and get fooled into raising the moochers' young.

Another current example is net neutrality. A long time ago, railroads and telegraph companies got rights of way in order to build regulated, "common carrier" services. Later, the regulated monopoly Phone Company got the same thing. Of course, people disagree about how to translate the idea of "common carrier" into regulations that apply to fiber optic cables, but there was always the idea that the predecessors of today's carriers got those rights of way as some kind of public trust. Get your rent-seeing PR machine fired up, though, and all of a sudden you can forget about all that. Burn the history books, make like it was all your private property from the beginning, and people's expectation of some kind of common carrier-like use of a modern network is pure regulatory overreach.

Back to "open source mandate." Proponents of fair contracts between public sector customers and software vendors just need a better term. We don't want to "mandate" the use of software that's currently available under an open source license. We just don't want our tax money wasted on a one-sided contract. And "open" is a stopword when you're talking about IT anyway, so let's just say "fair contract mandate."