Friday, November 23, 2007

Public versus Special Interest

Tibor R. Machan

I find it difficult to listen to political speeches because so many of my own ideas are either completely neglected or are attacked outright. But it is even worse when the ideas aired make no sense at all.

One such nonsensical notion is the repeated juxtaposition of the public and special interests. Politicians of all stripes routinely promise that they will not be captive to special interests and will only serve the interest of the public, of the people. They denounce farmers, labor, business, retired folks, educators, and other groups, claiming that such special interests stand in the way of the public interest, that the lobbyists serving these special groups are trying to impose their agenda against the that of the people.

This kind of rhetoric suggests that the country is composed of two distinct group of constituents, the people, who are all decent and honest and wouldn’t think of ripping anyone off, and all those who belong to special interest groups and corrupt the system. But that suggestion is completely misguided.

Actually, all the people in the country are now members of special interest groups. The mythical people to whom politicians refer, are, in fact, exactly who make up the innumerable special interest groups. These groups of citizens are the ones who hire the lobbyists and send them to various centers of political power so as to try to influence public policy and law to produce benefits for them, mostly at the expense of members of all the other special interest groups. Outside these groups there simply does not exist some large ensemble of benign folks, “the people,” who are the innocent victims of special interest politics.

Maybe I am exaggerating a bit—there could perhaps be a few thousand citizens in the United States of America who have not joined professions or other groups that try to influence politicians to serve them with various perks that must be paid for by other people. But they are entirely negligible. The bulk of Americans belong to groups that have leaders who promise to work hard to make them the special beneficiaries of public policy. Even retired professionals can join the AARP, once called the Americans Association of Retired Persons, an organization that not only uses its sizable numbers to secure various benefits on the private market but to influence public policy by means of supporting various politicians and legislation. (Once I was na├»ve enough to think that one could join such a group without signing up for some kind of political agenda but, alas, I was quickly apprised of the groups massive political efforts and decided against becoming a member.)

There is virtually no way that one can remain above special interest politics in America. That is because it is nearly impossible to disassociate oneself from all groups that lobby for special benefits. The teachers’ retirement program TIAA-Cref, which is as far as I know a massive monopoly—given that in all the colleges and universities where I have taught or even sought employment they were the only retirement program being offered to teachers—even announces in its TV advertisements that they are actively seeking benefits from politicians for their clients. One’s insurance company, one’s automobile club, even one’s frequent flyer group is out there lobbying for various goodies from the government. Indeed, virtually all the companies with which a person does business engage in lobbying efforts, as do unions and professional organizations. So when politicians claim they are not captive to special interests, they are engaging in either self-delusion or blatant deception.

There is but one way that a politician can escape being involved in special interest politics. This is to stick strictly to the principle of the Declaration of Independence which announced that it is to “secure [our] rights” that “governments are instituted among us.” And those are rights to our lives and liberties, not to various benefits, not to so called entitlements. A politician who is devoted to securing everyone’s basic rights is the only kind who is not serving various special interests—and mostly like one who is out of office.

The American Founders understood that the only public interest or public good is the protection of everyone’s individual rights. Once various special groups are singled out for care and attention, their idea becomes corrupted and the system becomes but a vast arena of everyone trying to rip off everyone else by means of political clout. That is also the road to economic ruin, to massive debt, to imposing obligations on the yet unborn, to printing money with nothing to back it up, and so forth.

If you really want politics without special interests, seek out a candidate who is committed to the original vision of the American Founders.

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