Friday, May 3, 2013

Greedy Bastards and Democracy

Teaching a class about American politics, Congress, interest groups, or some related topics? You really should find room for this comment, from a Ryan Grim and John Celock article about the online sales tax fight:
As one moderate Democratic senator put it during the swipe fee fight, "I'm surprised at how much of our time is spent trying to divide up the spoils between various economic interests. I had no idea. I thought we’d be focused on civil liberties, on education policy, energy policy and so on."

"The fights down here can be put in two or three categories: The big greedy bastards against the big greedy bastards; the big greedy bastards against the little greedy bastards; and some cases even the other little greedy bastards against the other little greedy bastards," the senator said, requesting anonymity so as not to alienate any of the bastards, regardless of size.
Yup. It is possible to take this point of view too far; it's not true that all US politics is simply interest group fights in which ideas of principle, ideology, or general public good are mostly or even entirely irrelevant. But there's a lot more of it than you would think from press coverage of Congress, the presidency, and elections. These fights are not, generally, along the lines of business vs. labor, or business vs. consumer, or business vs. the environment. There's no "good guys" or "bad guys" (whoever you think good and bad buys are). There's just greedy bastards -- although one of the ways they fight is to try to make people think there are good guys vs. bad guys, and the political culture encourages them to do so.

Quick note: I don't think that's a bad thing! One of the ways of thinking about politics is that it's about who gets what. Nothing wrong with that; politics in a democracy is a better way of settling those kinds of questions than brute force, direct payoffs, or some of the other ways they can be settled. And I think it's also fine that we encourage the participants to pretend that the common good matters even when it's really just a fight between greedy bastards; it's a positive incentive for better behavior.

But going back to the main point about how common this is: If you don't understand that, there's a big part of US politics that you're missing.

14 comments:

  1. I think it's worth making a different point: If this is what our democracy is mostly fighting over, you're doing (in a very broad sense) pretty well. We aren't fighting ethnic conflicts through political parties. We aren't really fighting class warfare in the Marxist sense; even if Obama passes his dream tax plan and budget the rich will still control a vast amount of the wealth in this country and the poor will still be aided by a minimal but extant safety net. And as racist as some of the right-wing rhetoric around immigration sometimes is, we aren't even fighting against the kind of neo-facist politics that still pop up in Europe from time to time (see the UK elections, yesterday).

    I think it's worth making this point as often as possible to counter the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric that we see everywhere.

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    1. You know, I'm going to feel less cynical about things today. That was a good point.

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  2. "And I think it's also fine that we encourage the participants to pretend that the common good matters even when it's really just a fight between greedy bastards"

    And also, the two aren't all that mutually exclusive; plenty of the greedy bastards honestly think that the common good and their own self-interest align, and some of them are right.

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  3. Maybe Obama should have read that before he nominated Wheeler.

    and yes, real poliitcos just view these partisan storms like hurricanes.

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  4. But is it good when because of wealth and influence they have an outsized voice? How can that possibly be good for democracy? Is there an invisible hand that guides the policy that ultimately it is healthy for democracy? Seems a bit silly, doesn't it?

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    1. The quote doesn't say anything about who wins the fights -- maybe the little greedy bastards have advantages!

      Anyway, one of the points is that there are a lot of fights -- not all of them, but a lot -- where both sides have wealth. It's not about an invisible hand meaning that democracy makes the "right" choice; it's just that democracy allows these things to be settled somewhat amicably and by agreed-upon rules.

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  5. And I think it's also fine that we encourage the participants to pretend that the common good matters even when it's really just a fight between greedy bastards; it's a positive incentive for better behavior.

    I'm very surprised by this assessment. Can you elaborate or give examples of how better behavior has resulted? I'm not seeing it anywhere, but I don't have omnivision.

    Cheers!
    JzB

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  6. backyardfoundryMay 4, 2013 at 1:01 AM

    You made a weird error here:

    "Nothing wrong with that; politics in a democracy is a better way of settling those kinds of questions than brute force"

    If you believe that line, try to flagrantly flout some act of legislation that greedy bastards bought from congress and explain to the federal employees with the guns at your door that they don't use brute force.

    For some reason, progressives don't think a gun is a gun when it's held by a federal agent.

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    1. backyardfoundryMay 4, 2013 at 6:53 AM

      All laws that demand specific action from someone are backed by force or that someone could just disregard the demand. I mean ... right? Do I have to draw a picture? But here's a stark example of big pharma using the power of the state to force people out of their homes:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/23/politics/23wire-scotus.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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    2. I suggest you read Hobbes for the difference between "state power ultimately backed by force" and "by force." Hobbes believes, and most feel he argues convincingly, that the former is far preferable even if the state is a completely arbitrary autocrat. To which most of us say: even better if the state is a an imperfect democracy. But if you really believe there's no difference, take it up with Hobbes.

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    3. backyardfoundryMay 4, 2013 at 2:28 PM

      I'm not saying that it's bad that the state be the principle source of violent compulsion; I'm saying that Progressives tend to avoid thinking about how their plans will be enforced.

      North Korea now? Germany in 39? China under Mao? Stalinist Russia? The systematic mass murder and/or state-enforced poverty make a stateless society sound pretty good to me by comparison.

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    4. backyardfoundryMay 4, 2013 at 3:00 PM

      It's why you guys generate so much pure hatred with soda cup size limits; you're using the threat of violence to dictate the tiniest details as you chant "YOU are the government!"

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  7. "...requesting anonymity so as not to alienate any of the bastards, regardless of size" was really nice.

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