Rent-Seeking Rebels of 1776

Since yesterday was Independence Day, I thought I should share a recent piece of research I made available. A few months ago, I completed a working paper which has now been accepted as a book chapter regarding public choice theory insights for American economic history (of which I talked about before).  That paper simply argued that the American Revolutionary War that led to independence partly resulted from strings of rent-seeking actions (disclaimer: the title of the blog post was chosen to attract attention).

The first element of that string is that the Americans were given a relatively high level of autonomy over their own affairs. However, that autonomy did not come with full financial responsibility.  In fact, the American colonists were still net beneficiaries of imperial finance. As the long period of peace that lasted from 1713 to 1740 ended, the British started to spend increasingly larger sums for the defense of the colonies. This meant that the British were technically inciting (by subsidizing the defense) the colonists to take aggressive measures that may benefit them (i.e. raid instead of trade). Indeed, the benefits of any land seizure by conflict would large fall in their lap while the British ended up with the bill.

The second element is the French colony of Acadia (in modern day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick). I say “French”, but it wasn’t really under French rule. Until 1713, it was nominally under French rule but the colony of a few thousands was in effect a “stateless” society since the reach of the French state was non-existent (most of the colonial administration that took place in French North America was in the colony of Quebec). In any case, the French government cared very little for that colony.   After 1713, it became a British colony but again the rule was nominal and the British tolerated a conditional oath of loyalty (which was basically an oath of neutrality speaking to the limited ability of the crown to enforce its desires in the colony). However, it was probably one of the most prosperous colonies of the French crown and one where – and this is admitted by historians – the colonists were on the friendliest of terms with the Native Indians. Complex trading networks emerged which allowed the Acadians to acquire land rights from the native tribes in exchange for agricultural goods which would be harvested thanks to sophisticated irrigation systems.  These lands were incredibly rich and they caught the attention of American colonists who wanted to expel the French colonists who, to top it off, were friendly with the natives. This led to a drive to actually deport them. When deportation occurred in 1755 (half the French population was deported), the lands were largely seized by American settlers and British settlers in Nova Scotia. They got all the benefits. However, the crown paid for the military expenses (they were considerable) and it was done against the wishes of the imperial government as an initiative of the local governments of Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. This was clearly a rent-seeking action.

The third link is that in England, the governing coalitions included government creditors who had a strong incentives to control government spending especially given the constraints imposed by debt-financing the intermittent war with the French.  These creditors saw the combination of local autonomy and the lack of financial responsibility for that autonomy as a call to centralize management of the empire and avoid such problems in the future. This drive towards centralization was a key factor, according to historians like J.P. Greene,  in the initiation of the revolution. It was also a result of rent-seeking on the part of actors in England to protect their own interest.

As such, the history of the American revolution must rely in part on a public choice contribution in the form of rent-seeking which paints the revolution in a different (and less glorious) light.


One thought on “Rent-Seeking Rebels of 1776

  1. Free rider problem that the British tried to fix by taxing the American colonies. Which in turn lead to the American Revolution which cost Great Britain even more money trying to suppress.

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