A Special Interest Group You Like Is Still a Special Interest Group
No, really. Just because public safety officers and teachers are public employees whose job it is to serve the public does not mean that their lobbying or government relations wings are any less “special interests” than any other organization that lobbies to protect its members’ interests. When police officers’ unions lobby for more funding for SWAT teams or asset forfeiture laws or Byrne Grants, are they acting in any materially different way than any other special interest group? When teachers’ unions fight every single education reform that doesn’t involve the words “more money” are they acting in any materially different way from a major corporation fighting regulation while demanding subsidies? And don’t let me get started on prison guards’ unions. The answer to all these is: of course not.
That doesn’t make them evil. Frankly, I’m quite certain that they really do believe that whatever is good for them is good for everyone else. I’ve also got no problem whatsoever with them doing it. Fer chrissakes, I’ve even worked on a grassroots lobbying campaign for a public safety union (and continue to believe that this particular group is on the side of the angels far more often than not). But let’s not pretend that they’re any less capable, as organizations, of putting their self-interest above the public interest (whatever the hell that may be) than are every other interest group on the planet.
I’m quite certain that Think Progress would consider the NRA a special interest. And guess what? It is exactly that. It just so happens to be a special interest group that, to the extent it actually purses its stated interests, I believe is serving the public good. Of course, others disagree that the NRA’s stated interests serve the public good. It’s the fact that there is debate about whether the NRA’s stated interests serve the public good – that makes them a special interest, not that the NRAs stated interests are opposed to the stated interests of Think Progress.
Similarly, it is the fact that there is disagreement over whether the stated interests of public employee groups are consistent with the public good that makes them special interests, not that those stated interests are opposed to the stated interests of John Boehner.
Of course, if I had my druthers, the phrases “special interest group” and “public interest group” would not even be in our lexicon. Here, I’ll just restate my First and Second Laws of Interest Group Politics and Corruption:
1. There are no such things as “special” and “public” interest groups: anyone seeking a particular outcome in a particular government action is an interest group, pure and simple.
2. Interest groups, even self-described “public” interest groups, seek nothing more or less than the advancement or protection of their leaders’ and members’ preferred outcomes.