Thursday, November 20, 2008

Politics Corrupts Interest Groups

(cross-posted at Upturned Earth, where comments are open)

Freddie DeBoer has an outstanding post up that discusses the way in which achieving legal and social equality, when it finally happens, will be the death knell for unified gay support of the coalition of the left. In essence he argues that success on these fronts would remove the raison d’etre for near-universal gay membership in the coalition of the Left. While many/most individual gays would remain in the Left’s fold, they would no longer be a solid bloc because the issue that made them a solid bloc will have been removed. As Freddie writes:

Sometimes certain groups of people actually have special interests, and as democracy is a system of individuals and groups competing for their own best interests, it’s natural to have affinity groups dedicated to pursuing those interests. So the cure for minority politics is to remove the complaints of the minority groups in the first place.

In all, there is little with which I disagree in Freddie’s post. But there are some important implications to Freddie’s points, which apply equally to nearly all interest groups.

Specifically, he helps demonstrate one of the fundamental reasons why interest group politics often wind up with the interest group being influenced far more heavily than the subject politician/political party. So long as a group presents a relatively stable voting bloc for a political party, that party will have little incentive to remove the causes that create that bloc’s stability. Thus, what often happens with interest group politics - and you can see this in Andrew Sullivan’s complaints about the Human Rights Campaign and in gun-rights supporters’ complaints about the NRA - is that the interest group’s policy preferences become increasingly identical to the policy preferences of the party behind which they throw their support. Indeed, this happens so often that I consider it a fundamental rule of interest group politics. The group’s goal become, in essence, electing more politicians from Party X because Party X is more friendly to the group than Party Y.

To retain the support of the interest groups, the parties will pay much lip service to the interests of those groups. They may even push legislation that marginally advances the groups’ agendas (think hate-crimes laws, for example), or fight against legislation that will severely hurt the interest group (and thereby undermine the cohesiveness of the interest group or reduce the group’s membership). What they will rarely do, however, is push for legislation that can be characterized as achieving the group’s ultimate goal.

Meanwhile, the coalition’s comparative friendliness to the interest group will lead to the interest group working extremely hard to nominate candidates that are part of that coalition. It will also, inevitably, lead the group to push issues that have nothing to do with the interest group but which advance the coalition’s overall positions. For instance, think of a labor union with a relatively pro-life membership fighting confirmation of judges on pro-choice grounds…believe me when I say that this happens.

In the specific case of gay rights groups, it is in the Democratic Party’s best interest not to throw its weight behind things like gay marriage; if it is successful in its efforts, then it will have removed one of the very issues that makes gays a fairly reliable vote for the Democratic Party. This is not to say that there are no Dem politicians willing to legislatively push gay rights; rather, it is to say that there is little incentive for most Dem politicians to do so. It is also not to say that the Dem Party makes a conscious effort to disregard fundamental gay rights issues; although that is certainly possible, it is at least as likely that the Dem Party simply takes the gay vote for granted, which moves fundamental gay rights issues far down the priority list.

Update - The debate between Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan over the role of evangelicals in the Republican Party seems pretty relevant to the points in this post as well. I think Larison gets the better of the exchange, mostly because his points implicate precisely my points above - evangelicals have been terribly unsuccessful at pushing through their legislative agenda despite one-party rule in Washington for much of the last eight years, yet they continue to support the GOP like no other group. As Larison says, “one reason they are so easy to blame [for the GOP's problems] is the same reliability of support that allows them and their issues to be taken for granted by the party.” That about sums it up. It also explains why change - no matter which side you take on a given issue - can be so hard to create on a political level; simply electing nominally friendly candidates does nothing to advance a meaningful agenda if the candidates’ party takes your group for granted.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Case Against Regulation

(cross-posted at Upturned Earth, where comments are open)

Matt Yglesias displays his libertarian streak this morning, writing of the financial crisis:

Investors will be extremely reluctant to get involved in the exact kinds of products that recently crashed, everyone will worry that the first sign of housing price increases is a bubble, and regulators will be keenly aware of everyone’s pet theory of what went wrong. But the crux of the matter is that though the phenomenon of financial crises repeat over time, but no individual crisis repeats itself. The trick, if you can pull it off, isn’t to prevent a repeat of the current crisis, but to prevent (or mitigate) the next crisis which is something else entirely.

This, to me, has long been the strongest Hayekian and/or utilitarian argument against regulation. Much principled regulation is inherently reactionary, trying to solve yesterday’s problems, “fighting the last war,” as Yglesias suggests. Yet the circumstances that caused yesterday’s problems are unlikely to reoccur, making reactionary regulation largely worthless.

And while the trick is to prevent or mitigate the next crisis, this is a trick government is often ill-prepared to pull off. Rarely does government have the kind of information necessary to predict exactly, even approximately, where and how the next crisis will occur; thus, to the extent government regulators make good-faith efforts to move pro-actively, they are likely to regulate something that either does not require regulation. In so doing, the new regulation can either have no effect on preventing the next crisis or can even marginally worsen the next crisis by reducing the ability of the market to adapt to the changing conditions.

Worse, though, pro-active regulations are particularly susceptible to regulatory capture. The average person who could be affected by a new regulation is unlikely to get terribly involved in the debate over that regulation because the average person’s interest therein is purely theoretical or potential. For example, a regulation that will increase the entry costs into an industry will not inspire massive opposition from people who will be priced out of entering into that industry precisely because those people are not yet in that industry; they are not yet aware of the fact that their potential interest being affected by the new regulation. Indeed, they likely are not even aware that they have a potential interest if they haven’t yet looked into the possibilities of entering a particular industry.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Politics, Federalism, and the Limits of Language

(cross-posted at Upturned Earth, where comments are open)

(This is the first of what I expect will be a series (of as yet unknown length) on the need for a new federalism that respects the need for communities to foster their own sets while at the same time seeking to protect the rights of dissident minority or relatively powerless interests within those communities).

In the United States, and really in most all of the developed world, some form of post-Enlightenment classical liberalism is the ruling philosophy. Critical to any such worldview is an emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. Of course, no modern philosophy lays as much a claim to classical liberalism as libertarianism - and yet few libertarians would call the world remotely “libertarian.” Why is this? Does the world just pay lip service to the idea of freedom and to Enlightenment ideals?

On the whole, with some exceptions, I think the answer is no. Instead, I think the answer lies in the fact that the boundaries of just about any concept are extraordinarily difficult to define in a universal manner. To be sure, we can all largely agree on the core elements of most important concepts, and those core elements must be protected. But on the edges, those concepts become very blurry and not subject to a priori universal definition.

Take for instance, the most basic of human precepts, the moral and legal imperative against murder, most absolutely stated by the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” You will find virtually no person or society who disagrees with the sentiment of this statement, nor with the necessity for it. And yet almost no one accepts it (in practice) as a moral absolute. Societies make varying legal and moral exceptions for self-defense, for war, for defense of others, for defense of property, or for enforcement of government laws. Indeed, as any doctrinaire libertarian will be quick to tell you, the very existence of government authorizes the use of lethal force since one who chooses to defend themselves against what they perceive as an unjust government action will be subjected to potentially lethal violence at the hands of that government.

Similar problems arise with just about any other significant legal or moral concept. The Non-Aggression Principle (which prohibits the initiation of force, and which many non-libertarians agree as being a worthy principle) for instance begs the question of what exactly is the “initiation of force.” Without resorting to utilitarian arguments (which inherently require a subjective weighing of costs and benefits), why is it a priori necessary to limit the definition of “force” to the use of physical force?

Short of anarchy (which has its own set of problems), there is simply no way to accommodate all these potential definitional boundaries within one government. Democracy seeks to do so, but must necessarily fail because of the manner in which it makes morality a function of the opinions of 50% plus 1 of those who vote - an arbitrary way of defining morality, to say the least. And yet, people need to have a clear set of definitions upon which to rely if there is to be any concept of a rule of law.

What is needed, then, is a system in which individuals have the opportunity to select, as near as possible, the set of definitional boundaries with which they most agree. The more freedom individuals have to select those boundaries, the more that government action for violation of those boundaries is justifiable and - as importantly - legitimate. Thus, the more centralized government becomes (and the more factions over which it has power), the less legitimate that government becomes.

Unfortunately, however, we don’t get to choose the government under which we are born. Nor is it terribly easy to escape that government, no matter how localized, if it imposes an unacceptably different set of definitional boundaries from you. Still, the more localized the government, the less difficult it will be to escape that government or, at a minimum, to effect a change in that government.

This thus implicates a system of federalism - but importantly one with a significantly different emphasis than the system with which we are most familiar - about which, much more later. But the big problem with our current concept of federalism is its emphasis on states’ rights, which fails to recognize that states are way too large an entity to respect individual rights or to rely on a valid concept of having the “consent of the governed”; indeed, many are larger than the entire United States at the time of the Constitution. This is also not an argument that implicates nihilism or moral relativism, at least not as I understand those concepts; instead, it seeks to permit - to the maximum extent possible - those with similar mores to live together under a common system of law and prove, in a non-violent fashion, their moral superiority or inferiority. Rather than demand a community accept behavior it deems immoral, it merely demands that a community tolerate the existence of other communities that it deems immoral.

NB: It may appear that I have conflated morality and the rule of law at various points in this post. That is not altogether unintentional. Indeed, part of my argument rests in part on the idea that: 1. A moral act requires some degree of voluntariness to truly be moral (i.e., an act is not made moral because it is legal, nor is an act made immoral because it is illegal); but 2. A community should have a right to protect its moral values to the extent there exists a consensus upon the definition of those values. In essence, the rule of law should, to the extent possible, reflect local consensus, both on matters of a moral and amoral (ie, things like weights and measures) nature. Regardless, this post is really just the tip of my arguments, so if you find my arguments lacking in some respects, please recognize this in your comments.