It usually begins with Ayn Rand



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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77 Responses

  1. Avatar Mark says:

    It doesn’t seem like there’s much agreement on what constitutes Randism. Ron Paul and Alan Greenspan are both acolytes. Paul opposes the mere existence of the Fed; Greenspan happily printed money until the economy couldn’t function anymore. No coherent philosophy has come out of Randism; it can be used to justify anything.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mark says:

      The right folks just aren’t implementing it properly.

      But, seriously, Rand’s philosophy (it seems to me) must (MUST) be seen through the lens of Stalin. When you see that it is a philosophy of reaction, it actually makes a great deal of sense. Psychologically, I mean.

      As we get farther and farther away from Stalin and we get fuzzier and fuzzier about what happened and forget who Walter Duranty was and so on and so forth, we see Rand’s philosophy without the context of its genesis and it seems pathological.

      Well, it was a reaction. It’s a philosophy that works best, it seems to me, as reaction. I try to imagine a society (or extended family, for that matter) using Rand as foundation and fail either in laughter or in trembles… but when Rand is used as a counter-point to a discussion of the need for government to take on yet more of the atrophying responsibilities of The People, it comes into its own.Report

  2. Avatar Katherine says:

    The case for redistribution, as I see it, is this. Our society and economy is structured in a way that rewards minimal work with great wealth, and substantial work that actually provides benefits to people as a whole with little wealth. There are two ways of doing this. The radical corrective is to change the economic structures so that, for example, building a house or being a teacher, a nurse or a doctor brings in greater amounts of money than speculating on the stock market or running AIG. But this would require an immense degree of change that would disturb most people. So a second-best option is to try to more closely approximate an equitable distribution of wealth by heavily taxing activities that make a small number of people rich off of the work of a much larger number, and by redistributing that wealth to actually useful occupations. If that discourages people from speculating or becoming corporate executives and encourages them to do something else (although in order to achieve this capital gains taxation would have to be far, far higher), so much the better.

    I find Rand ridiculous. She has to some degree taken Marxist ideas about those who create value and turned them on their heads by deciding the people who run things, rather than the people who make things, are the truly productive people. Galt’s actions are a one-man general strike and her worldview is messed up enough to believe such a thing could bring society crashing down. Yes, there are people who invent useful things – but if all the people in Asian sweatshops who make our shoes and clothing went on strike, I can be pretty certain it would have a larger effect than if the people running Google did the same.Report

    • Avatar cole porter in reply to Katherine says:

      It looks like Google has 20,000 workers. I don’t think it’s fair to pit them against all of Asia’s sweatshop workers, of which there must be tens of millions (hundreds of millions?). The CA grocery store strike in 2004 involved about 70,000 workers. It was big news but I think Google going on strike would be huge in comparison. I don’t think this is the best way to make the case against redistribution, but Google didn’t get rich making the rest of us worse off.Report

      • Avatar Katherine in reply to cole porter says:

        It looks like Google has 20,000 workers. I don’t think it’s fair to pit them against all of Asia’s sweatshop workers, of which there must be tens of millions (hundreds of millions?).

        Well, yes, that’s the point. Rand’s thesis appears to be that a few highly innovative people, not a large working class, are responsible for the continued working of the global economy. But the number of unskilled workers is far greater, and their productivity (as a whole, not per capita) is greater, than that of even very innovative members of the upper class.Report

        • Avatar cole porter in reply to Katherine says:

          Isn’t “per capita” the right thing to be thinking about? Presumably you think that the per capita wealth of the world’s sweatshop workers and upper classes is relevant, why not the per capita productivity?Report

          • Avatar Katherine in reply to cole porter says:

            But what Rand is saying is that people like Galt or the inventors of Google – inventors and innovators – not the working classes, are what allows the economy to function. The disparity is numbers is one of the things that makes this argument ridiculous. That’s what I was dealing with in the above post. That doesn’t mean inventors don’t do valuable things, just that the world would get along a lot better without them than it would without the class of unskilled workers.

            With regard to wages, I think people producing things like shoes and clothing should make more money than the people who run those companies, because the workers are the ones actually producing things of value.

            The people who work in customer service at Wal-Mart should make more than the people who run Wal-Mart, and the people who make the goods available at Wal-Mart should make more than either. Obviously, things work the other way around.

            Whether employees at Google make more than people making shoes is not really my interest; my interest is that in any company or organization, the people creating the most value should make the most money.Report

            • Avatar cole porter in reply to Katherine says:

              Do you mean “should” (in “should make more”) in a moral sense? Leaving aside some practical objections: I don’t think it’s immoral for someone to accept employment at Wal-Mart for less money than those who run Wal-Mart make, so I therefore don’t think it’s immoral for someone to offer employment at Wal-Mart for less money than those who run Wal-Mart make. What’s your problem with that reasoning?

              By the way I know hardly anything about Rand outside of the recent opinion pieces about her, and the fact that I saw the old “fountainhead” movie as a (very left-wing) teenager and really enjoyed it in a so-bad-it’s-good way. So I don’t really mean to be associating myself with her ideas.Report

              • Avatar Katherine in reply to cole porter says:

                In the sense of justice. Any movement society makes in that direction is a movement towards justice and away from an oppressive system. In the sense that I would support, and wish my government to support, any move the workers made towards such a system.

                It was not “immoral” for a person to be willing to work as a sharcropper a century ago; but it was undoubtably unjust for landowners to keep people in positions that prevented them from getting more than a minimal share of the value they produced, and the system that gave them no alternative to sharecropping was likewise unjust. It is not immoral for a person with no recourse to work in a factory that pays scarcely enough to eat and places them in bodily danger, but it is immoral and unjust for any employer to place them in such a situation. It is not immoral, on the part of the worker, to accept a job that exposes them to carcinogens and toxins that will kill them – it is immoral for the employer to expose them to such conditions.

                The problem with your argument is that you are treating this as an issue of free consent between two people, when practical facts and the economic state of the two people involved make it highly coercive. It is the same with all contracts between poor, unskilled or semi-skilled workers and corporate owners.Report

  3. Avatar mike farmer says:

    The objectivist philosophy was actually built by Peikoff and a few others after Rand died. Nathaniel Branden included the objectivist philosophy in his psychological work. Greenspan was a fringe member of the “Collective”, although Rand liked him, and Ron Paul is, well, Ron Paul. You have to read the Piekoff book to get the most comprehensive reading of Objectivism — plus, for other takes, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl — Tibor Machan has a good understanding of Rand –people can interpret Atlas Shrugged in many ways — it’s fiction.Report

  4. Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

    Some rather smart dude once wrote, or said, something to the effect that once the public had the right to vote themselves largesse it’s pretty much over. I figure that’s about the most accurate thing I’ve read in a long time.Report

    • Avatar ChrisWWW in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      Except it’s completely false. The public does not have the right to vote largesse for themselves, and it’s not pretty much over.

      In the last 30 years, the average worker has seen no real wage growth despite national gains in productivity and GDP. That wealth instead has been completely captured by the already wealthy. And rather than the “public” exerting large influence over politicians to create new welfare programs, we’ve seen the reverse. The wealthy and well-connected have pushed politicians to pass legislation lowering their tax rates and furthering their economic interests at the expense of the public. Case in point, the Wall Street bailouts that were followed by what appears to be no regulation.Report

      • Avatar mike farmer in reply to ChrisWWW says:

        I think Bob was referring to special interests. The unions haven’t done to bad, considering most of them could be unemployed, or making far less. And now the tarrifs are starting. I just hope the people realize they can vote politicians out of office is everyone participates — clean house and start over, but change the system so they don’t become corrupt. The special interests have been politically active while many have sat on their hands, so the special interests are being rewarded for their efforts. This is not how it’s supposed to be.Report

        • Avatar ChrisWWW in reply to mike farmer says:

          Well… Bob said “the public” not special interests. And while I agree mostly with what you’re saying Mike, I’m still not sure why anyone even bothers demonizing our toothless unions anymore.Report

          • Avatar Freddie in reply to ChrisWWW says:

            I’m still not sure why anyone even bothers demonizing our toothless unions anymore.

            Because conservative rhetoric, since the very beginning of what we now call American conservatism, has always relied on hate objects. Always.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to ChrisWWW says:

            Chris, perhaps Unions are toothless in the private sphere; but I remain deeply unhappy about the toxic and parasitic effect they have on the public sphere. I like unions in general but public sector unions (with an honorable exception to police and firefighter unions) are a plague. In the private sphere the very worst they can do is cripple a business which then goes out of business and shortly after that the union perishes as well. But the public sector doesn’t go out of business, it just bloats and becomes inefficient, so there isn’t a limit on the damage that can accrue.Report

            • Avatar ChrisWWW in reply to North says:

              That’s a more nuanced view, but I’m not sure I see any practical implications. The government can exploit workers just the same as private enterprise, so shouldn’t public sector workers be provided the same opportunity to organize?

              Also, what separates a union in your example from a company like Boeing or Halliburton that thrives on government contracts and subsequent lobbying for more government contracts?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to ChrisWWW says:

                Chris, (or do you prefer Chriswww?)
                The “Government Job” has been a cultural artifact for as long as there’s been government to issue jobs and they’ve always been sought after because they are high job security and decent pay. Governments just don’t typically abuse their employees; in general they just don’t have a reason to. Now you’re not going to become a millionaire at a government job (not honestly at least) but you’re not going to be living under an overpass either and you’ll have excellent job security. Also, there is the fact that in government your ultimate bosses are being elected and unions are very good at helping with campaigns and influencing elected politicians which leads to the pernicious phenomena of unions electing themselves raises. In private enterprise you have the managers and shareholders on one side of the table and the workers and union on the other. In the public sphere you have the workers and union still on one side but there’s just the elected official on the other side (and often the union has ways of influencing that official). In the private sphere the unions exist to temper/counter the rapaciousness of the capitalists. What value are they adding in the public sphere? In most cases the “value” being added is that they’re diverting more and more of the dollars allocated to do government tasks away from that task and into their pockets (and right out of the hands of the recipients of the governments largess).

                I like your second question. Off the top of my head I’d observe that Haliburton or Boing are being hired by the government to perform a service (and I’ll not be defending either one on whether that service is merited) but that a union is essentially attaching itself to government directly and siphoning off the resources. Not to mention it would not be hard to fire a contractor but it’s pretty damned hard to un-unionize something. In the private sector unions usually vanish only when their host company dies. Government doesn’t die, it just grows.Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:

                That’s not totally fair, and sort of strangely characterizes government jobs. Especially as we move more and more toward so-called “pay for performance” schemes, power in the government workplace is being ever-increasingly concentrated in the hands of management. The motives and ideals remain somewhat different from the private sector (management is generally more interested in amassing power and empire than it is in increasing profits or its own paychecks), but the danger to the worker is somewhat similar. Unions play an important role in checking that kind of authority.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Ryan says:

                I disagree that unions can help with any of those things. Unions do several things for their members. They advocate for higher wages, they advocate for strict rules on promotions and procedure in the workplace and they strongly try to reduce the ability of the organization to change employment levels (especially down). Unions have no reason to care whether the managers in the government office are building empires and frankly there’s very nominal effect on the worker if the managers are empire building. An empire building manager is going to want more employees and a bigger budget (more pay) in a handsome comfortable work environment. I don’t see anything about empire building in government that a union would oppose. What unions would oppose would be change: improvements on the government program, downsizing, procedure change, new technologies or ways of doing things. Unions like defending the statuesque. Government is staid and static enough on its own without unions adding to the problem.Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:

                Empire-building managers want loyal employees who follow orders, even if those orders are against the interest of the employee or the taxpayer. They make salary decisions for their employees based on loyalty rather than merit. Unions have a lot to say about those kinds of things.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to North says:

                That may be Ryan, and we could probably have a go round about whether unions make it better or worse but I think we’re quibbling about the margins here. My position remains that unlike the huge benefits in human welfare that the institution of unionism brought about in the private sector there was not a similar improvement in the public one.
                I just am completely unaware of any examples of western governments treating their employees as poorly, pre or post unionism, as pre-union industries treated their workers. I re-iterate the government job has been a sought after and envied position for as long as government has existed. There was never a need to bring unions in to improve the lot of the workers in the public sphere in most cases but they came in anyhow. So we end up paying the price of unions without getting much benefit from them.Report

              • Avatar ChrisWWW in reply to North says:

                “Chris” rather than “ChrisWWW” is just fine. Thanks 🙂

                You make a good point about contracts being easier to end than government jobs. I think that’s true at certain levels of government. A department might decide to buy its printer paper from Staples rather than Best Buy. But once you get up to the level of the contract for the Boeing/Lockheed Martin F-22, it becomes very difficult to end those contracts even absent any logical need for them.

                I’m not sure I have a point about all that, just throwing it out as food for thought.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to ChrisWWW says:

                I agree Chris; never let it be said that I think it’s easy to break it off with the big contractor who’s in bed with the government. But it is more possible, I’d opine, than it is to remove a big union from a large government department. With contractors a competitor or an enemy politician can come along and upset the applecart. But politicians of any stripe don’t get much reward for busting unions and there’s not really such thing as a competitor to a public sector union.Report

            • Avatar briber in reply to North says:

              As an employee of the US Postal Service (and a union member), I have to disagree with you here. Prior to the restructuring in the early 1970’s that established the bargaining units the Postal Department was rife with abuses directed against workers.
              The memory of some of these abuses is so ingrained that it has seeped into our language (postal jargon). An example: swing rooms. Swing rooms are what would more commonly be referred to as employee break rooms. Before union representation, postal managers would direct clerks that had run out of mail to sort, to clock out and wait in the break room for more mail to arrive. When more mail came in, the clerks would clock back in and sort it. Waiting in the break room for more work was called “swinging in the wind”.

              The problem here is that workers accepted positions that were nominally full-time but in practice were anything but. The situation was made worse by requiring employees to remain on premises even though they were not in a pay status. Compounding the problem, employees could be fired for moonlighting.

              “But”, you may ask “how then should the Postal Service respond to seasonal fluctuations in mail volume?”

              The answer is simple. Under union representation career employees are guaranteed a 40 hr work week consisting five 8-hour days. Part-time-flexible (PTF) employees are scheduled for a nominal 40 hr week where minor changes in the number of work days in a week and the durations of those days is permitted. Finally, casual employees are hired for uncertain work schedules for a period of up to 6 months. The justice here lies in the fact that each worker receives what they agreed upon.

              Having a mix of workers permits the Postal Service to schedule there workforce to match the work. Negotiations between management and union determine the composition of that workforce.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to briber says:

                Thank you for your contribution briber. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Government treatment of their employees has been uniformly and universally pure as the driven snow. I’m delighted to hear that unions have helped solve a problem in government/employee relations but when compared to what unions did for the private sphere: the 40 hour work week, the weekend, the ending of the wage-slavery of the corporate store etc; the ending of some unfair hour practices is pretty weak tea.

                I still am dubious that the benefit of unionizing the public sphere outweighs the costs. I would never dream of suggesting that there are no benefits. But I am keenly aware of the costs.Report

        • Avatar Freddie in reply to mike farmer says:

          The special interests have been politically active while many have sat on their hands, so the special interests are being rewarded for their efforts. This is not how it’s supposed to be.

          Who is a special interest? I’ll tell you something– the Glen Beck, 9/12 movement crowd? The very definition of a special interest. And yet, somehow, I don’t think that you’ll regard them or their interests with the same disdain that you regard union interests, or black America’s interests, or the gay community’s interests, or any other “special interests”.Report

          • Avatar Ryan in reply to Freddie says:

            How about the NRA? Now THAT is a special interest!Report

            • Avatar Dave in reply to Ryan says:


              I will note, however, that it was not the NRA who brought Heller to the Supreme Court. That was those evil bastards at The Cato Institute, another interest group.Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to Dave says:

                Hey, I’m not opposed to the NRA. I’m a Second Amendment absolutist and I think they do awesome work. But there’s no getting around the fact that they are, by many accounts, the largest, most powerful special interest group in the country. And yet we never hear libertarians bemoaning that.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ryan says:

                Libertarians rarely bemoan the ACLU.

                They bemoan the AARP, however, which is by all of the accounts that aren’t the accounts that the NRA is the most powerful special interest group the most powerful special interest group in the country.Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to Jaybird says:

                My bad on the AARP. I forgot them. God I hate old people.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Ryan says:

                Your heresy has been noted Ryan. Expect a severed walker on your bed in the morning along with a harsh note from your Grannie.Report

              • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Ryan says:

                One thing about the NRA – they’re powerful, no doubt, but I can think of a number of groups that have more power than them, especially when you consider how limited the NRA’s scope is and how broad other groups’ scope is.

                The NRA’s power is actually pretty comparable to the power of unions (albeit on a much smaller scope of issues) – they have a lot of power to block legislation by virtue of their prominence on Team Right, but not a lot of power to actually pass legislation. They have a tendency to exemplify the “go along to get along” problem discussed below as a result.Report

  5. Avatar mike farmer says:

    Oh, I don’t know what I was thinking about. There is no special interest problem in America and the toothless unions haven’t cost taxpayers billions.. Carry on.Report

    • Avatar Freddie in reply to mike farmer says:

      There is no special interest problem in America and the toothless unions haven’t cost taxpayers billions.

      Unions, actually, did more to generate wealth for the middle class in this country’s most stable and prosperous decade than any other factor, but hey, who’s counting? I’ll ask again– why are unions/black people/gay people/environmentalists “special interests” but white conservatives not?Report

      • Avatar Kevin in reply to Freddie says:

        Black people and gay people aren’t “special interests”. That’s who they are. People do choose, however, to believe in environmentalism, to belong to unions, to support 2nd ammendment rights, etc.

        In any case, I think if we did a little research, we’d find that the special interests that detrimental to society as a whole, are those with a NARROW interest, ie: the drug lobby, the oil lobby, and so on. Those are necessary and beneficial industries, but they are looking out for their stock prices, and don’t seem to care (or maybe don’t realize) that their ruthless business practices hurt real people.Report

    • Avatar ChrisWWW in reply to mike farmer says:

      Certainly “special interests” exert an enormous amount of influence on public policy. But the “special interests” that primarily benefit from this arrangement are not unions, illegal immigrants, welfare queens and so forth, but the rich folks who run Wall Street, refine oil, manufacture drugs, and build bombs.

      If unions were the all-powerful source of pain in this country, why couldn’t they force Card Check legislation to be passed? Why are the numbers of unionized workers continuing to tumble? Why are union benefits being slashed at GM and Chrysler?

      Contrast that with the special kid gloves treatment of the Wall Street banks that we have to thank for the worst recession since the Great Depression. They were shoveled trillions of dollars. Think of all the Treasury dollars the new health care bill, like the Prescription Drug bill based by Bush, will funnel into the hands of large health care conglomerates.Report

      • Avatar Dave in reply to ChrisWWW says:

        Certainly “special interests” exert an enormous amount of influence on public policy. But the “special interests” that primarily benefit from this arrangement are not unions, illegal immigrants, welfare queens and so forth, but the rich folks who run Wall Street, refine oil, manufacture drugs, and build bombs.

        They do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.Report

  6. Avatar mike farmer says:

    Goddamit Freddie, I’m sick of this weak fucking argument of yours. I have stated explicitly a thousand times that I don’t like government favoring one group over another reagrdless of it’s left or right. You can call me a liar and insist I believe it’s alright for the right, but you’ll have to call me a liar and admit that you’ve never seen me propose anything differently. And subtly implying that I am against blacks and gays is low even by your standards — fuck you — you are a punk. Y’all can delete this, I’m not coming back this time — this place will be taken off my reader list.Report

    • Avatar Freddie in reply to mike farmer says:

      Slow down– I think you’re not taking my position for what it really is. What I’m suggesting to you, Mike, is not that you favor white rural Christian conservatives, but rather that you are working in a political and media system that insists that they are not a special interest whereas other demographic groups are. You know what I mean? I’m asking you to expand your definition of special interests. Personally, I think the term is either applicable to everyone or to no one; no one, in democracy, doesn’t have their own interests, and no one doesn’t advocate what’s best for them. What ticks me off is that there are some sides who are seen as doing so illegitimately. I just think “special interest” is a meaningless pejorative we would do well to abandon.Report

      • Avatar Dave in reply to Freddie says:

        I just think “special interest” is a meaningless pejorative we would do well to abandon.

        It is not a meaningless perjorative. It applies to big business as much as it does organized labor, the banking sector, religious conservatives (i.e. Focus on the Family), and environmental activist groups. It is a neutral term for any collective group that seeks to use the power of government to advance its own agenda.

        Personally, I think the term is either applicable to everyone or to no one; no one, in democracy, doesn’t have their own interests, and no one doesn’t advocate what’s best for them.

        James Madison understood this concept very well and understood the threat that those factions advocating for their interests can pose for representative government, especially when those interests are self-serving.

        • Avatar Ryan in reply to Dave says:

          It is a neutral term for any collective group that seeks to use the power of government to advance its own agenda.

          In which case it’s more empty than meaningless. You say the special interests are drowning out other people’s voices, and I have to ask if you mean big business, labor, or stamp collectors.Report

        • Avatar Katherine in reply to Dave says:

          I think it’s useful to look at “special interests” as two different kinds of groups; one can be beneficial to democracy, one is inherently inimical to it.

          “Special interests” as groups who, through their degree of public support and membership, are able to pressure the government on behalf of their causes – this would include the NRA and Christian groups as well as the gay lobby, environmental groups, and unions – are part of how democracy works: ordinary people organize and “petition the government for redress of grievances”.

          The other kind is ones whose influence comes not from numbers and popular support, but purely from riches: bankers, credit card companies, agribusiness, real estate investors, lawyers and the rest. This is contrary to democracy: it allows the few to override the will of the many by using any elected government to serve their own interests. Go back as far as the Revolution and you’ll see writings on the dangers of wealth concentration to a democratic system: when one group has the preponderence of money, they can bend government to serve their interests rather than the public good.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to mike farmer says:

      Mike – Damn.

      Freddie – I think that white conservatives represent a host of special interests. That’s why when they take power so often they are, like their liberal counterparts, slaves to special-interest legislation and why limited government almost never, ever actually happens. This is one of the tricky things about limited government and about crafting government to be less inclined to cave to special interests. It’s very hard to actually achieve especially once you’re in power.Report

    • Avatar Katherine in reply to mike farmer says:

      Well it’s rather hard to tell, given that ignore the fact that government actually does favour Wall Street, investors, oil companies, credit companies, banks and agribusiness – ie, the very wealthy – over everyone else, and try to demonize unions despite government having acted in opposition to the union movement for years and despite workers’ wages having stagnated while the income of the aforementioned groups have skyrocketed.

      If you think the US would work better if it modelled its economy after China and had everyone work 12-hour days for a pittance, say so and stop this disingenuous crap.Report

    • Avatar Mark in reply to mike farmer says:

      Wow. That’s intense, Mike. It might be worth re-evaluating some of your own statements to see why people think you’re not acknowledging the special interests on the right. Statements like:

      “The rich are still our family — we don’t want a bunch of paternalistic technocrats to actually destroy them”

      “Government policies…have created a dependence on federal and state welfare programs among minorities”

      “Redistribution of wealth hurts the economy by taking money from those who produce the most which could be used for economic expansion and job creation”

      “America has been held back for years by a powerful state and anti-capitalist policies. Once the restrictions are removed and investors see stability, our economy will break loose and we can move on to the future.”Report

  7. Avatar nick.t. says:

    Glenn Beck’s crowds are a constituency, and not a very well-informed one, but they hardly constitute a special interest. As for Ayn Rand, she produced adolescent fantasy fiction, in which the children get to rebel without consequences. Imagine Galt’s Gulch in real life – the foot-stamping, the pouting, the rage – and all because they had to run their own baths and read their own e-mail.Report

  8. Hmm….this dispute seems odd to me. I don’t think there should be anything controversial about the notion that “special” interest is a meaningless term. In practice, it means nothing more than “interest groups that are not on my team.” I find it particularly unusual that libertarians are suggesting that there is a distinction between “public” interest groups and “special” interest groups. AFAIK, standard libertarian thought has typically been that all interest groups are “special” interest groups – the issue in public choice is usually just that “narrow” interest groups will inevitably have a disproportionate influence on policy. “Narrow” doesn’t refer to the size of the group but rather to the scope of issues that the group represents.

    The term “special” interest moreover implies that there is such a thing as a definable “public” interest, something that I think most libertarians would reject (I know I do). Frankly, there are few things that make my skin crawl more than the prominent use of the label “public” interest by interest groups. The fact is that just about every interest group thinks that its interests and the “public” interest are the same – if they didn’t, then they really would be the demons they are typically portrayed as.

    To me, the big issue is how to prevent any one interest group from violating the rights of other interest groups (aka, how do you mitigate the effects of faction). I’m also concerned about the way in which the American political system results in politics influencing interest groups such that political teams become more important than a given group’s actual interest’s, in effect creating two dangerously permanent and stable coalitions.

    As for the specific issue of unions, I’ll just say that the notion that they still have a huge influence on the Dem Party ought to be uncontroversial. They effectively have veto power over just about anything the Dem Party proposes. This veto power is hugely problematic because it severely limits the scope of actions the Dems can choose from policy-wise. True, the unions don’t have so much influence that they can get anything they want passed into law, but then again there really aren’t many interest groups that can say that, with the possible exceptions of the defense and agriculture industries. This is doubly true in the case of unions because the issues that are collectively important to them inherently affect a huge swath of the economy such that their actions will just about always provoke strong resistance from other interests.

    The way unions overcome this is by putting their “team” first. But doing this is hardly cost-free. It means they spend more efforts that could be spent on their own issues fighting for issues that have little to do with them but which help their team as a whole. It also means that they narrow what they fight for to things that can be accomplished without severely wounding the team.

    This is hardly unique to unions – it seems to be true of just about every interest group that, for one reason or another, feels compelled to pick a particular team. I would say that interest groups that are able to remain largely independent of either team probably have more influence in most respects but that influence is somewhat mitigated by the fact that neither team will owe them a particularly large amount of loyalty.

    Sorry if the above is a bit incoherent – I’m trying to sum up way too many things in way too little space. The whole interest/special interest dichotomy is something I’ve got a long history with.Report

    • Avatar Ryan in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I think it’s not quite right to say “permanent and stable”. The history of the two-party system shows a lot of fluidity in the makeup of the parties (think of Strom Thurmond as a microcosm of that process).

      That said, the US system does encourage the creation of two teams whose members will often “go along to get along” with whatever the team’s goals happen to be, because the alternative is not having any political voice at all. I can think of ways one might fix that, although oddly enough, those methods (more democracy) tend to meet very strong objections from the very libertarians who murder so many pixels in the name of two-party-contrarianism.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Ryan says:

        “I think it’s not quite right to say “permanent and stable”.”

        I think that it was really stupid of me to say “permanent and stable,” especially when I’ve written much in the past about how this is not the case.

        What I should have said was that we have a dangerous amount of cross-issue stability in the coalitions. Neither coalition has anything resembling a coherent governing philosophy much beyond “our side good,” “their side bad.” I tend to think this results in a politics where compromise has to be made between “independent” interest groups and whichever side happens to be in power such that the “independent” interest groups are the true power brokers.

        “I can think of ways one might fix that, although oddly enough, those methods (more democracy) tend to meet very strong objections from the very libertarians who murder so many pixels in the name of two-party-contrarianism.”

        Well, fine, but libertarians are an interest group unto themselves (as are Greens and single-issue majorities). Regardless, I tend to think that your proposed cures are worse than the disease – tyranny of the majority, and all that. Of course, I have my share of ideas about how to resolve the problem where the cure wouldn’t be worse than the disease. Some you may like, some you may not.Report

        • Avatar JosephFM in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          And I think it’s worth noting that, per some of the above comments, such “independent interest groups” tend to be corporate and industry based.Report

          • Avatar JosephFM in reply to JosephFM says:

            That is, because in general, most large industries have nothing to gain from backing one side over another, when instead that can favor or antagonize both parties to insure neither ever really attempts to curtail their special privileges.

            Of course, the AARP, mention above, also roughly functions this way, which is why you have Republicans defending Medicare.Report

  9. Avatar Bruce Smith says:

    “The bottom 99 percent of taxpayers pay 29.4 percent of their income in local, state, and federal taxes. The top 1 percent pay an average total tax rate of 30.9 percent.” Line from the Jonathan Chait, New Republic article referenced.Report

  10. Avatar Bruce Smith says:

    As the evolutionary pressures for adaption intensify on capitalism in an increasingly complex and inter-related world it is increasingly naive and counter-productive to allow a narcissistic and sociopathic mind-set to prevail in terms of the ownership of capital such as that manifested by Ayn Rand. Successful businesses know that to remain successful they are not in the business of manufacturing, or servicing widgets, but in that of being a learning organization and this is best incentivized by distributing financial power and control throughout the business.Report

  11. Avatar uff the fluff says:

    Maybe a few of you have misjudged the direction in which wealth is being redistributed?Report