In its first full year of business in 1998, the 99 Cents Only store in the north Los Angeles city of Lancaster did over $5 million in sales. This was welcome news to the city, given the space had been vacant ever since the new “Power Center” shopping development, where 99 Cents was located, opened ten years earlier. Almost immediately, however, 99 Cents’ next door neighbor, Costco, told the city it needed to expand. The owner of the center offered Costco optimal space behind 99 Cents, but Costco insisted that the city use its power of eminent domain to condemn 99 Cents’ business. If the city refused, Costco threatened to relocate to neighboring Palmdale, who surely would use ever tool at its disposal to attract the lucrative big box store’s business. To seal the deal, Costco issued an additional threat: not only would it relocate to Palmdale—it would leave its existing store shuttered and vacant as an economic deadweight on the city’s key commercial center. Backed against the wall, the terrified city relented. It condemned 99 Cents’ store, paid the shopping center owner $3.8 million, and give the parcel to Costco for one dollar.
This story typifies what drives all rent-seeking: Motive and opportunity. Businesses seek economic advantage wherever they can find it, and they frequently find it in the coercive power of the state. Ill-defined limits on government powers—of which eminent domain is just one example—give businesses easy access to this power. When the economy grows, the motive to capture the government intensifies. When government is centralized, the opportunities to capture it get cheaper and more convenient. When the limits on government recede, these opportunities get still cheaper and more abundant. Motive explains why rational private interests engage in rent-seeking: to gain a competitive edge. Opportunity—that is, the opportunity for access to government power through ill-defined limits on that power—explains why rational government officials yield to special interests: they face a “race to the bottom.” If the Lancasters of the world refuse to use their coercive government power for the benefit of special interests, some other government official or agency will. Denying access to special interests just means they will look elsewhere. And they will surely find it, so long as giving in to special interests is a matter of legislative “discretion.”