Thursday, April 28, 2011

Interest Groups and Democracy

Just a terrific item from Matt Yglesias this morning about why politicians listen to interest groups:
This is something that I think a lot of intra-left discourse tends to miss about why policy reform is so difficult. Any time you want to disrupt a coalition of entrenched incumbent rent-seekers, be they in the oil industry or the health care industry or the financial services industry or what have you, you’re going up against a strong team. And it’s not strong simply because the CEOs have access (though they do) or because the firms can give money (though they can) it’s strong because big companies have employees. And those employees have spouses and kids and siblings and they pay taxes that support local government and shop at nearby stores. And this entire trail of dependents fears change, and deems itself entitled to whatever economic privileges the industry in question currently receives.
Absolutely right. Indeed, the whole reason that folks like this have access to politicians is at least primarily because they represent a whole lot of constituents.

Now, it's a funny kind of representation, because of course management wants lots of things that their workers don't want, but the important thing to get here is that when it comes to subsidizing industry, management and workers are often on the same side: they want more subsidies. No Member of Congress want to see an item in the hometown newspaper* with a headline like "Senator Snubs CEO of Local Company." Even a Member who specializes in anti-business rhetoric.

But Yglesias is also right that partisans (and I don't think it's just on the left) tend to think of any interest they don't like as a "special" interest that only gets Congressional attention for illegitimate, corrupt, reasons. And, sure, not all groups have equal access. But, yes, a big part of American-style democracy (and, at least in my view, any reasonable flavor of democracy) is going to involve what Robert Dahl called "a high probability that an active and legitimate group in the population can make itself heard effectively at some crucial stage in the process of decision" (Preface to Democratic Theory, 145). In my view, those upset about what they consider the outsized voices of some groups are better off focusing on how to make sure that their own groups, and others they believe are being ignored, get their own chance to be "heard effectively," too.

*Yeah, yeah, I know, but there still are some local newspapers, and I'm willing to bet that their readers are massively disproportionately likely to vote.

1 comment:

  1. No--the problem is that some interest groups (like oil and gas producers) are concentrated in low-population states that have an outsized influence in the Senate. Get rid of the rural bias of our political system, and the "special interest" problem will diminish considerably.


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