Lobbying a “Necessary Evil”?


Massimo Pigliucci published a post this morning that I disagree with. That isn’t hugely unusual. I rarerly agree with everything in any post that I ready. What is unusual, however, is why I disagree with Massimo on this post. Typically, with Massimo, disagreement is a matter of having differing priorities or thinking that asking a different question would yield a more useful answer. This time, I disagree with his reasoning.

The topic is lobbying.* Massimo and Michael De Dora got into a friendly argument on Twitter on the topic, which really isn’t suited to that sort of thing. Massimo moved the argument over to the blog and laid out his position at length. Michael will respond at some point as well.

Massimo summarizes his point fairly well.

An interesting exchange ensued, during which Michael tried to convince me that lobbying is not just a necessary evil (as I readily admitted, in the specific case of non-profit / non-corporate lobbying), but a positive good for our democracy. Here is why I think he is wrong.

Massimo’s points tend to fall into two categories, neither of which I think supports the characterization of “necessary evil”. The first can be generally characterized as “Politicians and voters should be better than they are.” An example:

Yes, [lobbyists] may have expertise on a given subject matter, but that expertise is channeled specifically in the service of a pre-determined agenda. Representatives have other ways to get impartial expert advice (to the extent that impartiality is possible on political matters, of course). First off, they have paid staff whose purpose is precisely to provide them with background research on whatever issue they are suppose to be legislating. They can also ask their staff to contact, say, academic experts or organizations (like the National Academy of Sciences) to provide them with the needed perspective. Going to a lobbyist for education is like going to your bank for financial advice. Wanna bet they’ll tell you that their products are the best on the market?

I agree that politicians should look to be educated. Their staffs should prepare comprehensive research and briefings based on that research. They should look to non-politically affiliated experts where those are available. I also agree with many of the other “shoulds” of democracy that Massimo refers to in his piece. Politicians should be elected based on their policy positions. Citizens should be aware of what their government is working on and should communicate their positions on these issues to their elected representatives. Citizens should receive the kinds of education that allow them to effectively argue their interests in our democratic systems.

However, I also know that certain parts of society are privileged in their access to poltiicians, people are busy, political reporting sucks, politicians get elected because they seem to be “a good guy to have a beer with”, many questions are researched only by people with skin in the game, and politicians and their staffs often have priorities that have nothing to do with anyone’s expertise on a topic. Arguing that the reality is not the ideal supports the idea that corrective measures are necessary. It doesn’t support the idea that they’re evil. If we agree that people have a responsibility for their own trash, that doesn’t make highway cleanups a “necessary evil”.

Massimo also attempts to support the “evil” characterization on its own.

[E]ven a document [download] that Michael himself shared during the course of our Twitter conversation makes my point. The report in question essentially says that the only countries were there are registered (meaning: officially recognized as part of the way the government operates) lobbyists in the Western world are the US, Canada, and Germany. In all other countries, of course, there are people and organizations that try to influence the legislative process, but do not have regulated privileged access to the legislators. Indeed, the report mentions the case of the UK, which I think is one from which the US could learn: “The UK, on the other hand, has opted to regulate the lobbied rather than the lobbyists.” In other words, the focus should be on regulating the legislators and prevent privileged access to them by any group, an approach that hardly diminishes people’s rights to organize in support of their causes.

Looking at the document Massimo refers to, what is regulated or disclosed in the UK is specifically polticians’ financial interests in the matters they vote on or oversee. This means that polticians are prohibited from personally benefitting from the decisions they make. It does not mean that they can’t be lobbied or that they can’t be lobbied by someone whose full-time job it is to bend the politician’s ear on the topic–or five such people. There are no regulations on how they allocate their time to various interests.

In other words, lobbying, even corporate lobbying is one thing. Providing money or other considerations to politicians is a separate thing. Even though he mentions both, Massimo argues that the first is bad by conflating it with the second. However, while I would agree that purchasing government decisions constitutes evil (for some values of evil), that still doesn’t convince me that representing those interests to politicians is also evil. Neither do Massimo’s arguments that some of this lobbying is done in ways that obscure whose interests are being represented. Something that is an inherent good can still be done in unethical ways.

I am also not convinced by Massimo’s more general concerns about professional lobbyists being inherently unfair, but this is more one of those situations in which I don’t think he’s asking the right questions. We tend to think of politicians as insulated, isolated, but they’re not. They don’t spring into the politcal arena with no past and no social circle. Nor do they stop socializing outside of government when government becomes their business. They don’t refrain from talking anything but sports and Hollywood blockbusters when they socialize.

Everyone around poltiicians shapes their views of what is important. In our stratified society, with high monetary and educational barriers to office, even bureaucratic office, that “everyone” around politicians is already very likely to be skewed toward those with the money to arrange unequal access to the ears of politicians.

This means that “Is the ability to afford a formal lobbyist or lobbyists inherently unfair?” a less-than-useful question. A useful question under these circumstances is “Given that access to politicians is inherently uneven and unfair, does it improve or worsen the situation to organize these interests into formal, registered lobbying groups?” or “Does the organization of these interests into special lobbies add to the influence of the moneyed or provide a useful service by explicity identifying their interests as special interests?”

Neither of those is a question I can answer, of course, or I’d do that right here. Maybe they’ll be answered by Michael or Massimo in the course of their discussion. I’ll follow the arguments and wait to see. In the meantime, however, I think Massimo has uncharacteristically failed to make his point.

*Full disclosure: I work for a company that occasionally lobbies for our corporate clients’ interests. Some of the research I do informs that lobbying. I’m not a pro-corporation person in general, and some of what we lobby for bothers me quite a bit. Some of it I think adds a critical understanding of the processes governed under regulation laws.

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