In 1891, Edward Bellamy suggested that the American people should “assume through their salaried agents the conduct of industry as they have already (in this country) assumed the conduct of political affairs.” He explained:
The president, governor, and mayor do not make a profit on the business of the nation, State, or city, as employers do upon the industries which they manage. These and all other public officials receive salaries only, as agents, the business being conducted for the benefit of the people as the principals. … There is no more sense in permitting the industrial affairs of this country to be run for private profit than there would be in allowing their political affairs to be so exploited. (Quoted in Benjamin Tucker’s Instead of a Book, pp. 473-474.)
Okay, so they didn’t have the term “rent-seeking” back then. But surely they had the concept?
(1) They had a somewhat related concept, in that they were familiar with monarchic and aristocratic governments, where the right to govern was held as private property and could be inherited as such. But this was not considered to be the case in a republic. It was more or less the Roman distinction between res publica and res privata, I think.
(2) There was more tendency back then to think of politics in legalistic and moralistic terms: To suppose that public officials did what the law required, and did so because they were committed to following the law. Or, at least, there was more tendency to view cases where they didn’t as aberrations, failures of the man and not of the system. I don’t think the concept of a system that inherently invited its own abuses was even as well recognized as it is now—and even now there are lots of people who, for example, compare the realities of (more or less) capitalistic societies with the ideals of socialist societies and conclude that socialism is better. At least we now have the concept of realistic, empirical political science; back then, such proto-realists as Machiavelli were vaguely scandalous and tended to be seen as advocates of amorality.
Both of these comments are basically guesses, of course, not careful historical analyses; I’m not knowledgeable enough to provide the latter.
“Failures of the man and not of the system.” This is the running thread behind just about every MSM story covering some sort of government failure, and it frames the debate among the public. The thought that “the actors always change, but the the directors of the play remain the same” is conveniently avoided.
This is why I voted against giving the Prometheus Award to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix a couple of years ago. It certainly showed us the brutal abuse of bureaucratic power; but the conclusion it reached was, “So we have to enlighten the head of the bureaucracy and then the abuses of power will stop,” rather than, “So we have to do away with bureaucratic regulation of magic, which is far too susceptible to abuse.”
Tucker taking on Bellamy? That’s gotta be good! (And there’s probably more in Shawn’s Liberty archive.)
I don’t know, the sentiment seems not all that different from modern liberals and social democrats, for instance the current drumbeat for government-run healthcare.