Monday, December 19, 2011

A Conciliatory Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Movement – How to Shrink the Role of Money in Politics

As a general rule of thumb, if you support the Occupy Wall Street Movement, you don’t like the Tea Party, and vice-versa. Each group’s eccentricities are likely to antagonize the other. One uses patriotic marches on Washington and protests in an orderly manner, while the other uses mic checks and tries to incite disorder. One group has been known to yell obscenities at congressmen, the other to yell obscenities at policemen. One is liable to wave the American flag, the other is liable to defecate on it. The differences are not just in style, but also in ideology. Some in the media have portrayed OWS as “the liberal version of the tea party”, and to some extent this is true. As a libertarian, I must confess I identify more with the Tea Party, and it’s also true that some fringe members of each movement have irreconcilable differences in belief.

But as a general whole, I think we can still be friends. This essay is dedicated to explaining why. To my view, both groups have primarily identified the exact same problem: politicians are in bed with special interests. The key distinction is that each blames the other half of this relationship: the Tea Party blames the politicians, whereas OWS blames the special interests (particularly business interests). As such, the Tea Party marches where they believe the culprits are (Washington, the seat of our federal government) and OWS demonstrates where they believe the culprits are (Wall Street, the symbol of big money). But they are both essentially protesting the same thing. A Venn Diagram created by James Sinclair on his now-famous blog “How Conservatives Drove Me Away” depicts this situation brilliantly:

Unless you are a politician or a large corporation capable of buying them off, you probably see all the negative consequences of that middle area. That middle area represents the disproportionate role of money in politics, and most people hate this. What this tells us is that the majority of people in both the OWS movement and the Tea Party have at least something in common with mainstream Americans. Both are identifying a real problem.

But unfortunately, solving a problem is much more difficult than identifying it. If effective reform is to be enacted, it’s essential that the blame be accurately applied, so that we reform the right things. It is my intent in this essay to explain why the government, rather than big business, deserves the brunt of that blame. If you support the OWS movement, this is not designed to show why we’re right and you’re wrong. Rather, it’s designed to illustrate how your admirable goal of reducing the role of money in politics is more likely to be achieved by shrinking the role of government than by expanding it. Unless of course you’re an OWS protester who also believes that the best solution is to give the government more power, in which case yes, it will try to prove you wrong!

Anyways, to be at fault for a problem, one must have done something wrong or failed to fulfill one’s responsibility in some way. In our quest to assign blame, therefore, it is essential to determine what both governments and special interests are supposed to do, what their purpose is, so that we may identify which has deviated from that responsibility and to what extent.

First, let’s examine the purpose special interests. The job of a special interest group is to, well, advance their interest. Greenpeace’s interest is to help protect the environment; that is their purpose. AARP’s interest is helping the elderly; that is their purpose. If that interest is profit, the special interest is a business. These business interests, especially large corporate businesses or banking interests, are the primary scapegoat of OWS. They are certainly not the only special interests with ties in Washington, but since they’re the ones specifically blamed by Occupy Wall Street, we’ll give them some special attention. A business is a venture that is started by an entrepreneur with the purpose of making money. The purpose of any business, even of a business which has evolved into a corporation, is purely that: making money so that the owner (or, in the case of the corporation, the shareholders) will profit.

So, have these business interests failed to do what they are supposed to do? Certainly not! Any Occupy protestor will tell you that many big banks, many corporations, are raking in record profits. Businesses are supposed to make money, and they are. Non-profit special interests are supposed to advance their interests, and for the most part they are. They are not failing to fulfill their responsibilities; they are using government to help them fulfill their responsibilities.

Now let’s examine the purpose of government. That’s a contentious issue, but just about everyone agrees that one of the primary objectives of government is to protect the rights of the citizens. In the US especially, our government’s job is outlined in the constitution’s preamble; our government, it reads, was created “in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” for American citizens. The interpretation of those terms is still the subject of much debate today, but not so much that we can’t pass a verdict on how well the government is doing that job: not very well. Many people’s rights are not protected. Public approval ratings of all three branches of government are at near record lows. Justice has not been established as fully as most would like, we lack domestic tranquility, the general welfare is not being promoted, and our liberty is not being secured. Therefore, the government is to blame.

Ultimately, the government is responsible for protecting our rights, because the government has a constitution. All other groups of people are not, because they don’t. Therefore, the government is failing to do its job, while special interests are not. The government is not doing what it’s supposed to, while special interests are. And when those two forces unite and all of us our rights are encroached upon as a result, the blame must be placed squarely on the government for failing in its duties.

Since we’ve established that the blame lies with government, we now must ask another question: what’s wrong with government? And how do we fix it? Many have suggested that what’s wrong is that people, both in politics and business, are too greedy nowadays. They propose that we should fix it by removing or restricting special interests from politics in order to help government do its job more effectively, with less external influence. The problem with this solution is that the only body that could do the restricting is government itself, meaning that the shaping and enforcement of those restrictions would therefore also be subject to lobbyist influence! It is for this exact reason that each prior attempt to reign in special interests or restrict money in politics has failed, and that every future attempt will fail as well. Restricting special interests requires increasing government power, but the increase of government power is the very thing which has granted those special interests such sway.

How so? To understand why, we must look at history. Because of their differing roles and differing objectives, it used to be that these modern allies acted independently of one other. Interest groups tried to pursue their interests by lobbying for private funds, either through charitable donations or venture capitalists seeking a return on their investment. Companies tried to make money by offering competitive products at competitive prices, or by inventing new products that they could sell to people for profit. The poor, old, or sick got help from churches, soup kitchens, private orphanages and the like. Government did its job, and special interest groups did theirs.

But as government grew larger and larger, those spheres began to overlap, much like the Venn-Diagram above. As the government’s power grew, so did its influence in the lives of its citizens. And the more influence it wielded, the more it impacted the likelihood that a business would succeed, the more it could help or hurt any given interest group. Companies began to realize that it was much more profitable to buy off a politician to regulate their opponent than it was to win the competition with that opponent on a level playing field. In turn, even companies which hadn’t planned to adopt this strategy needed lobbyists on the other side just to stay alive. Interest groups saw that the government now had the power to help them, and so they sought the help; others saw the government now had the power to hurt them, so they tried to block the hurt. This is why we saw such an explosion of lobbyists on K-street during the 60’s and 70’s; as the government grew under the Great Society, more and more groups of people needed the government on their side if their personal or group objectives were to be met.

In turn, politicians likewise realized that they could advance their individual interests of reelection by giving out favors to powerful (read: wealthy) private interests. This is the birthplace of the modern lobbyist-politician alliance that both the Tea Party and the OWS movement abhor, and the reason money has such an influence in politics today. Therefore, granting the government more power to regulate and restrict these special interests will only add fuel to the fire. The only permanent and complete solution to the problem is to take away what caused it.

What caused it is not greed. People are no more or less greedy today than they were 100 years ago. But the government is much bigger today, which gives people an avenue to pursue their greed they didn’t have before. If we want to reverse the effects of individual greed on the common benefit, we have to take away those avenues. We have to take away the government’s power. Corporations cannot oppress anybody without the assistance of government, but government can oppress people even without the help of corporations. And they frequently do.

In conclusion, both of these movements are angry because the few have great power over the many. The root of the problem is power. Ultimately, the government wields that power. Money can only buy it; it cannot enforce it without the government’s help. Reduce the power of government, and there is less power for money to buy. If we want to reduce the role of special interests in politics, we have to reduce the role of politics in special interests.

1 comment:


    Hit the nail on the head.