Those who care much about legislative debate often gripe about the influence of “special interests.”

Why can’t lawmakers pay more attention to the little guy? The taxpayer? Why do these special interests get such sweetheart deals?

It’s easy to blame individual lawmakers or powerful lobbying groups. But what role does our system of government play? In their entry on “public choice economics” in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006), James Gwartney and Robert Lawson write the following:

The political clout of special-interest groups is one source of government failure. Consider an issue that provides substantial personal benefits to members of a special group, while imposing small personal costs on members of a large majority of citizens. Since their personal stake is large, members of organized interest groups (and their lobbyists) have a strong incentive to inform themselves and their allies and to let legislators know how strongly they feel about the issue of special importance. Many of them will vote for or against candidates strictly on the basis of whether they support their interests. In addition, such interest groups are generally an attractive source of campaign resources, including financial contributions. In contrast, most other voters will care little about a special-interest issue, and, as the result of the rational ignorance effect [Kokai’s note: this effect is defined earlier in the entry as the individual voter’s lack of incentive to inform himself about candidates and issues because his vote plays such a small role in the ultimate outcome of an election], have little incentive to acquire information on the issue. For the non-special interest voter, then, the time and energy necessary to examine the issue will generally exceed any potential personal gain from a preferred resolution. Thus, most non-special-interest voters will simply ignore such issues. Given this incentive structure, there will be a strong incentive for politicians to support the special interests even when their views conflict with economic efficiency. Political support for counterproductive government programs such as business and agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and pork-barrel spending reflect government failure due to the special-interest effect.

Does this phenomenon absolve lawmakers who make poor choices? No. But it should remind us that the best government is one in which the lawmakers’ freedom to make those poor choices is circumscribed by a well-designed system of checks and balances.