Creating Constituencies for Inertia

March 16, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The national pastime, at least here at the seat of the national government, is a game economists call ''rent seeking.'' It has many permutations, one of which has produced the ''perimeter rule'' concerning National Airport, which sits on the Virginia bank of the Potomac, a short drive from the Capitol, the Yankee Stadium of rent seeking.

Rent seeking is the attempt by a private faction, in league with compliant public officials, to bend public power to private advantage by conferring either an advantage on that faction or a disadvantage on that faction's competition. Rent seeking is usually an attempt to evade market forces, so it sows inefficiencies in society's allocations of resources.

Consider the rule that planes taking off from National may not have as their initial destination any airport more than 1,250 miles away. Draw on a map a circle with a radius measuring 1,250 miles. The perimeter of the circle will cut just deep enough into Texas to include the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The perimeter rule was set at 1,250 miles in 1986, when the speaker of the House was Jim Wright of Fort Worth.

This story began in the 1960s, when airlines serving National agreed to combat congestion at National by limiting non-stop flights from there to destinations within 650 miles, with exceptions for seven more distant cities that already were receiving non-stop flights from National. The federal government, which then operated National and, much farther out in Virginia, the new Dulles Airport, which had opened in 1962, supported the rule as a subsidy for Dulles: The rule conferred on the less convenient airport a monopoly of long-distance flights.

In the early 1980s the perimeter rule was revised to permit 1,000-mile flights, covering the seven cities that had been granted exceptions to the 650-mile limit. But by 1986 some airlines responding to that inconvenient (as governments often consider it) idea called consumer sovereignty, were evading the perimeter rule by taking off from National, touching down briefly at Dulles about 26 miles away, then flying on to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Texas' congressional delegation proposed exempting Dallas-Fort Worth from the 1,000-mile limit. But Houston, which still would have been without non-stop flights from National, was not amused. Neither were cities within the 1,000-mile perimeter that stood to lose flights that would be rerouted to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Texas prevailed with the 1,250-mile perimeter rule that swept in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. The effect was to permit some flights to land there and to compel many others to land there. This benefited two large airports and many commercial interests. But the law in its majesty still forbids non-stop flights from National to, for example, Denver and Salt Lake City.

And to Phoenix, home of Sen. John McCain, who has an old idea and a new position from which to advance it. The idea, which pertains to government involvement in the economy, is: When in doubt, get it out. His position, a result of last November's election, is the chairmanship of the aviation subcommittee of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The perimeter rule is, 18 years after the deregulation that produced today's highly competitive airline industry, an obviously anomalous federal interference with the market's ability to reflect consumer preferences. Erasing the rule would cause a redistribution of flights between National and Dulles, and would have ripple effects, some of them disadvantageous to various interests, in cities that have been hubs for flights forced by law to terminate within 1,250 miles of National. So there is much talk about this ''wrecking'' air-traffic patterns around Washington and around the nation and hurting Dulles as a feeder of trans-Atlantic flights, some of which, say pessimists who are confident of their clairvoyance, would be canceled.

This small controversy about an obscure rule illuminates how regulatory government produces resistance to the reform of itself. By making decisions that markets would not make, government creates or strengthens interests that become dependent on government not letting markets work. These interests defend their government-conferred advantages by playing upon two impulses that are becoming stronger in reaction against conservative attempts to prune government.

One impulse is a flinching from the unpredictability of freedom's consequences. Another is to assert the entitlement mentality -- interests that become dependent on government policies are entitled to have those policies continue forever. Thus does the perimeter rule demonstrate how activist government, responsive to rent seekers, creates, in the end, constituencies for inertia.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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