by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Is this proliferation of interest groups buttressed by sophisticated lobbying operations a good thing? Some argue yes, drawing on ideas reminiscent of Madison in Federalist #10. Per this theory, no one group is able to dominate another, so the end result must be policy that does not harm the public interest. Just as Madison seeks to pit faction against faction to secure the public good, we can be confident that when the Chamber of Commerce squares off against the AFL-CIO, the two will balance one another so that the final product of the policy process is good for everybody.
Yet this is a fallacy of composition. Just because all of the organized interests at the table have signed off on a proposal does not mean that it serves the public interest. Alternatively, it could be that the process of policy development is much too favorable to certain groups over others; in that case, the give and take among interest groups inevitably favors the wealthy over the poor, the organized over the unorganized, the active over the latent. None of this need be consistent with the public good. Similarly, what is to stop the various interests in this pluralist system from coordinating a massive logroll, such that each group is bought off by a particular benefit? Far from advancing it, such collusion could be more detrimental to the public interest than if a single interest group dominated the body politic.
These are the sorts of considerations that prompted political scientist Theodore Lowi to pen a very pessimistic take in The End of Liberalism. Writing in the late 1960s, just as it became clear that this new interest group society was here to stay, Lowi warned that the new regime was inconsistent with truly public policy. His name for this new mode of government was interest group liberalism (a term that can be fairly applied to both parties):
It may be called liberalism because it expects to use government in a positive and expansive role, it is motivated by the highest sentiments, and it possesses strong faith that what is good for government is good for the society. It is “interest-group liberalism” because it sees as both necessary and good that the policy agenda and the public interest be defined in terms of the organized interests in society.
Per Lowi, the problems with this system are that it distributes power to the most interested groups in society, setting up an inevitable conflict between the public good and private demands; it creates new pathways of privilege that usually reinforce the prerogatives of existing interests; and it resists most change, even in the face of declining public confidence.
Interest group liberalism is regularly not public spirited. While there have been instances when government acts according to the public interest, too much of its business is wrapped up in rewarding the factions that have mobilized to pressure it. In many cases, these benefits undermine whatever public-spirited purpose the formulators of the original policy had in mind.