Special Interests, Universal Appeal

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
                                                                         H.L. Mencken

My colleague Bryan Caplan explains today in the Wall Street Journal.

When special interests talk, politicians listen and the rest of us suffer. But why do politicians listen? Social scientists’ favorite explanation is
that special interests pay close attention to their pet issues and the rest of
us do not. So when politicians decide where to stand, the safer path is to
satisfy knowledgeable insiders at the expense of the oblivious public.

This explanation is appealing, but it neglects one glaring fact.
"Special-interest" legislation is popular.

Keeping foreign products out is popular. Since 1976, … Americans who
"sympathize more with those who want to eliminate tariffs" are seriously
outnumbered by "those who think such tariffs are necessary." Handouts for
farmers are popular. A 2004 … Poll found that 58% agree that "government needs
to subsidize farming to make sure there will always be a good supply of food."
In 2006, … over 80% of Americans want to raise the minimum wage. … These
results are not isolated. It is hard to find any "special interest" policies
that most Americans oppose.

Clearly, there is something very wrong with the view that the steel industry,
farm lobby and labor unions thwart the will of the majority. The public does not
pay close attention to politics, but that hardly seems to be the problem. The
policies that prevail are basically the policies that the public approves. …
To succeed, special interests only need to persuade politicians to swim with the
current of public opinion.

Why would the majority favor policies that hurt the majority? … The
majority favors these policies because the average person underestimates the
social benefits of the free market, especially for international and labor
markets. In a phrase, the public suffers from anti-market bias.

Thoma excerpts more.


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