Economists refer to an economic rent as a return to the owner of a resource in excess of what might be expected under normal competition. Market competition tends to reduce such rents; high profits attract new entrants who offer lower prices or better value for the same goods and services.
Government can create an economic rent by limiting market competition .. Who is harmed by government providing economic rents? Consumers are harmed ..
Rent seeking involves other costs to society. The economic rents provided by the government are not economically productive. The resources spent seeking to persuade officials to grant an exemption from competition to an organized interest are wasted. This waste includes not only money but also the diversion of talent and time into rent seeking. Smart lobbyists might have done something more productive with their brains and their time.
Some people do benefit from economic rents and therein lies the problem of reform. The owners of a license gain the right to abnormally high profits. The public officials who grant the freedom from competition receive votes, electioneering efforts, and campaign contributions from the taxi industry. Everyone in the industry has a clear material interest in continuing the licensing whatever its effects on everyone else.
Those who see government officials as benevolent seekers after the general welfare have a hard time accounting for rent seeking. It is not enough to say that bad people in office should be replaced by a better sort. The incentives created by awarding rents to organized groups would remain when the better sort arrive.
The idea of rent seeking tells us to be skeptical of government, pessimistic about reform, and morally outraged about the status quo.