Lobbying Democracy in action
ET , 17 Dec 2008, 0512 hrs IST, Robert J Samuelson
Lobbyists have a bad rap, which is why politicians routinely vilify them. People want to blame their discontents on sleazy influence merchants. Periodic scandals confirm the stereotypes: the Jack Abramoffs who wine and dine legislators. But mainly the anti-lobbying bias is mythology.
Myth number one is that lobbying is anti-democratic , because it frustrates “the will of the people.” Just the opposite is true: lobbying is an expression of democracy. We are a collection of special interests; and one person’s special interest is another’s job or moral crusade. If people can’t organize to influence government—to muzzle or shape its powers—then democracy is dead. The “will of the people” is rarely observable, because people disagree and have inconsistent desires. Of course, the “public good” should always triumph, but what represents the public good is usually debatable. The idea that the making of these choices should occur in a vacuum —delegated to an all-knowing political elite—is profoundly undemocratic. Lobbyists sharpen debate by providing an outlet for more constituencies and giving government more information.
A second myth is that lobbying favours the wealthy, including corporations, because only they can afford its cost. Government favours them and ignores the poor and middle class. Actually, the facts contradict that. Sure, the wealthy extract privileges from government, but mainly they’re its servants. The richest 1% of Americans pay 28% of federal taxes, says the Congressional Budget Office . About 60% of the $3-trillion federal budget goes for payments to individuals—mostly poor and middle class. You can argue that the burdens and benefits should be greater, but if the rich were all-powerful , their taxes would be much lower. Similarly, the poor and middle class do have powerful advocates. To name three: the AARP for retirees; the AFL-CIO for unionized workers; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for the poor.
A final myth is that lobbying consists mostly of privileged access to legislators or congressional staffers—and that campaign contributions buy that access. Although this happens, it’s not the main story. “Lobbying is much more substantive and out in the open than its ugly caricature. Lobbyists primarily woo lawmakers with facts,” writes Jeffrey H Birnbaum, the veteran lobbying reporter. If lawmakers “see merit in a position and there is a public outcry in its favour, that’s the way they tend to vote.” Lobbying is marketing: trying to transform a group’s narrow interest into something perceived as the “public interest.”
In 2008, there are about 16,000 active registered lobbyists—people with sufficient congressional contacts that by law they’re required to report, says the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s up about 50% since 1998. But there are also hordes of public relations consultants, advertising managers, Internet advisers and policy experts primed to influence government. When political scientist James Thurber of American University counted all these others, the influence-lobbying complex ballooned to 2,61,000. Under Obama, this complex will expand. Of course, it can capture public policy for private purposes.
Sometimes this involves discreet favours: budget “earmarks,” tax breaks or regulatory preferences. Though large for recipients, most are small in the context of government. What matter most are the major policies that determine the government’s overall size and direction. Lobbying ensures robust debate on these issues , and whether the ultimate outcome is for good or ill, it’s democracy in action. (c) 2008, The Washington Post Writers Group
July/August 2003 Atlantic
Americans censure nepotism on the one hand and practice it as much as they can on the other. There's much to be said for "good" nepotism, the author argues—which is fortunate, because we're living in a nepotistic Golden Age
by Adam Bellow
In Praise of Nepotism
The tendency in American life since World War II has been toward individualism, mobility, and the dissipation of family bonds. The "return" of nepotism therefore seems especially disturbing. Critics from both left and right have pointed out the worrisome consequences of reviving the hereditary principle. Several writers have recently argued that after a long period of extreme social mobility and mixing, the United States is undergoing a new process of stratification. Call it what you like, the overclass, the cognitive elite, the meritocracy, today's American elite increasingly lives in its own segregated communities, sends its children to the same exclusive schools, marries within its own class, and acts in other ways to pass on its accumulated wealth, position, and privileges. In other words, the American meritocracy appears to be turning into an exclusive, inbred caste. [...]
Indeed, we should not only respect great families but try to be more like them. Rather than simply seeking to punish or stamp out the bad kind of nepotism, we should reward and encourage the good. The risks inherent in the return of dynastic nepotism have been exaggerated and fail to take into account both the progress of meritocracy and the power of social envy in a democracy. Dynastic heirs walk on very thin ice in our society: we readily grant them the benefit of the doubt, but we hold them to extremely high standards, and at the first sign of their failing to meet those standards, the hammer comes down hard.
Nepotism may be objectively discriminatory, but given that people are going to practice it anyway, we may as well infuse it with meritocratic principles so that all can benefit. Let families compete for public honors; this has always been the soul of republican virtue, and it is up to us to recover this tradition in every generation. The spirit of family enterprise gives dignity and meaning to our lives, and is not only a spur to achievement but also a check on excessive ambition. It links the generations in a chain of generosity and gratitude. We would all be better off if we reflected more consistently and deeply not only on our debt to our ancestors but also on what we owe our descendants. Adam Bellow is an executive editor at large for Doubleday. This article has been adapted from his book, In Praise of Nepotism, to be published in July by Doubleday. Amazon.com: In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History: Adam Bellow