The term rent-seeking is generally applied to politicians and government officials who seek benefits from the implementation of rules and regulations they administer. But the term is also used of those who benefit from the rent that, as it were, they pay to those in authority. Influencing government officials, and even government itself, to grant favours is an easy way of profiting in cultures where transparency is lacking and decision makers have discretion (which is generally a good thing) but without accountability (which is essential, with regard to discretionary decisions as well as finances).
This is one reason why governments should reduce the number of rules and regulations, and the number of times the public have to seek government approval for any initiative. This does not mean government should abdicate its responsibility of formulating and enforcing regulations, in the interests of equal opportunities and fair play. But too often regulations lead to individuals capable of winning favour easily obtaining approvals and support from officials, while members of the general public are driven from pillar to post to get answers, let alone permission. That is why, as the great Liberal statesman of the German Free Democratic Party put it, a country needs strong government, but it should be small.
There is another way however in which profit can be made from the excessive powers of government. By influencing government to take decisions which are not in the popular interest, special interest groups can often reap great benefits. Examples are the manner in which duties are sometimes imposed, or restrictions withdrawn.
A more insidious example struck me the other day when a friend whose son finished the Ordinary Level Examination last year told me that he would now face a large bill for tuition each month. I had known his son had not gone to school in the first term, but I thought he had resumed school, now that the Ordinary Level results were out and students knew what they could do next.
But it turned out that classes had not yet started. This seems to be the case in all government schools, and naturally parents, who do not want their children to be idling, send them for tuition. When some do this, it is difficult for others to hold back.
Why government cannot start classes straight away, as happened when I was in school, or at least in the second term, is inexplicable – except for the benefits reaped by the tuition industry, which as is common knowledge commands disproportionate influence. I hastenleast in the second term, is inexplicable – except for the benefits reaped by the tuition industry, which as is common knowledge commands disproportionate influence. I hasten to add that this is no criticism of the present Minister of Education, at whom people point fingers unfairly, given his own background as one of the more popular and financially successful tuition masters before he took to full time politics. While obviously he might be influenced to hold back on the necessary reforms by his former associates, the rot started a very long time ago, long before he appeared on the scene.
Unfortunately it was entrenched by his predecessor. Before that there had been an attempt to rationalize the system, and the Advanced Level Examination, which is now conducted in August had been moved to April. Having it in August is used to excuse the delay in starting classes, since those sitting the exam are in theory occupying classroom space (they do nothing of the sort, but in theory at any rate they are supposed to be following classes in the first term of their final year). Moving the Exam to April meant that they would be on study leave from January, so the new Advanced Level intake could start classes.
But, in 2005, when the new government was elected, the impression was created that Tara de Mel, who was probably the best Secretary of Education we had had since the legendary Edward Wijemanne of the eighties, was an implacable foe of Mahinda Rajapaksa. One reason for this was an act of immeasurable folly by President Kumaratunga, who had in effect taken Tara away from the Ministry of Education at the beginning of that year, and entrusted her with tsunami work. That is turn was the result of excessive political rivalry, since the President had been away when the tsunami struck and found that the Prime Minister had handled the crisis effectively in her absence.
That could not be accepted, so the President promptly set up her own mechanisms, in the process sidelining Lalith Weeratunge, who as Secretary to the Prime Minister had been in the forefront of relief work. Tara was appointed to head one of the three committees the President appointed, and though Tara herself was not one to play snap about what was done and not done, the President’s agenda was different. Apart from other difficulties this created, one consequence was the erosion of the relationship between Tara and Lalith, who had been a wonderfully supportive Deputy to her when she was first Secretary to the Ministry of Education.
The result was that the one person in authority in government who understood the benefits of the reforms Tara had initiated , and her capacity, did not come to her defence when the rent seekers in the Ministries fell upon her ideas with a vengeance. With regard to the moving of the Advanced Level Examination, it was argued Tara did not understand the national culture and had ruined New Year celebrations for the nation. This was nonsense for the examinations could easily have been concluded by the first week of April.
But convenience was not the real problem, it was the attack on the tuition culture. If youngsters did not have an enforced break from school, and if the concept was entrenched that school was where you learned, the tutories would suffer. That was unacceptable, so the wellbeing of students was forgotten.