What's so bad about "special interests"?

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I hear it all the time. “We’ve got to stop special interest groups!”, “Let’s get rid of special interests in Washington!” etc. Just for fun, I did a google search and right at the top:

When I think of SI I envision a group of people banding together and trying to influence government policy in their favor. These groups range across the whole political spectrum promoting far left to far right agendas and everything in between.

So what? Isn’t that what a free society is about, people getting together and trying to further their beliefs? What’s the big deal?


You hit it on the head. Basically everyone in this country is a member of a “special interest” group: farmers, gun owners, teachers, environmentalists, union members, etc. They all have lobbyists or associations here (I’m in D.C.) who represent them to the powers-that-be. And all are trying to get their piece of the huge federal pie. Or, alternatively, they are trying to convince the government to leave them alone.

I used to work for a Senator and I was visited regularly by these “special intersts.” They were merely trying to show how a proposed law would either benefit or hurt them, and ask that my boss take that into account. There was nothing sinister about that. Of course, when politicians attack “special interests,” they are only talking about the ones who disagree with them.

There is also a flip-side to this, though. In the Federalist Papers, I believe it was Madison who warned about the dangers of factions, of people who would try and use the government to promote their narrow aims. He felt that when people do this, they are misusing the levers of government. In essence, today’s special interests are the factions Madison warned us about. It’s really not right that, say, farmers try and use the government to subsidize their way of life, or that steel manufacturers try and get government to erect tariffs to keep our foreign steel. This really is a perversion of our government. Of course, everyone does it, and any interest group would be foolish to keep a representative out of Washington on principle.

Bruce Daddy,
Here’s the deal. You are interested in oil. And a bunch of oil companies think that’s a good interest for you to have. One may be Halliburton, or even Shell. Who knows. So they pay you to talk to people about how good oil is.

Well you pop off to Washington, or Austin, or Chicago, or some other place like Bagdad. And because you’re interested in oil, you’ve got a lot of oil to throw around. Or at least dollars that your oil producing friends made.

Well low and behold you give some of that to Dick Chaney and George Bush. And a couple of years later you get a nice multi-billion dollar contract to supply oil to Iraq, like it doesn’t have any to start with.

Then there are Insurance Companies that want to privatize social security. Imagine if all social security policies had to be through a private company! Imagine the business that would mean for some companies! Imagine the “interest” that would generate in a campaign for a politician. Or even Martha Stewart, who wants to cure cancer as long as it makes her a profit. And she’s on the inside and can trade before you and me.

As Fareed Zakaria said in his book “The Future of Freedom,”

Many of these groups have legitimate interests, but they distort the system because of what some have called the Logic of Collective Action. He gives the example of Cuban Americans living in New Jersey and Florida. Many polls show that most Americans want to see the current policy changed, and to be more engaging with Cuba. But, Cuban Americans are fiercely anti-Castro, for the most part. They also live in two electorally signifigant states, and they are the only ones that fundraise and vote on this issue. Politicians know that, even if the vast majority of Americans think that the USA should be more open with Cuba, the policy remains as is, because any change wouldn’t gain many voters, except on the margins, and would lose many more.

Also, Mr Zakaria raises the issue of farm subsidies. If a group of 100 farmers come together to petition the government to subsidize their industry to the tune of 100 million dollars, they each stand to gain a cool million. The rest of the United States, roughly 300 million citizens, eat a loss from extra taxes or cuts in services of about 33 cents apiece. Who is more likely to form an interest group? The farmers who stand to gain much, or the consumers who stand to lose little?

The farmers form the group, and lobby Congress. The average American loses 33 cents, and the farmers get a cool million each in subsidies.

Multiply this across hundreds of industries, and we now see some of the bad side effects of interest group politics. “Special interests” get tax breaks at the expense of ordinary Americans, get subsidies at the expense of ordinary Americans, and so on. In this way, many “special interests” get what they want, even if it is to the detriment of the country as a whole.

I believe it was Jesse Jackson who said that a well-organized minority is a majority.

Of course, there is nothing especially sinister or inherently evil about interest groups. They are excercising their right to petition the government of grievances. But with so many of them, and many having naked self-interest at stake, not to even go into the whole can of worms about “buying access” or the appearance of corruption, the system of majority rule and minority rights gets distorted by well-organized groups of passionate people.

Incidentally, I highly, highly reccomend the book “The Future of Freedom” by Fareed Zakaria. It covers the whole gamut of modern democratization, from world politics, to culture, to domestic politics, to the California system of pseudo-direct democracy, to why the Arab world isn’t very politically advanced, to the relationship between democracy and the rule of law, to the death of elites, to the democratization of religion, and so on. It’s great. Trust me.

I’m an interest, he’s an interest, she’s an interest, they’re an interest, wouldn’t you like to be an interest too?

I think what hroeder is trying to say is that special interests becomes a problem when it goes against the interests of the rest of society or shows particular favoritism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Halliburton or Shell lobbying for support. What would be an issue is if they lobbied successfully to make the water-powered car illegal since such a thing would benefit us all.

Lobbying is a classic example of “squeeky wheel getting the grease” theory but in many ways it is a vital link between elected officials and their constituants.

Here’s a take on the issue: