Interest groups are collections of people with essentially the same self-interest, about which they feel so strongly that they collectively form an organization to promote and defend it through the political process.
The development of the political philosophy of the social contract underlying our civilization prioritizes individual self-interest and protects the pursuit of that self-interest through politics.
The First Amendment’s last clause reads: “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people to freely assemble and petition government for a redress of grievances”. It captures the two key parts of interest group politics: collective action (the right to freely assemble) and lobbying government to answer the demands of citizens (petition for redress of grievances). The idea of citizens with similar interests proactively or reactively demanding that their government protect their self-interest is the cornerstone of democratic government, and using intermediaries to press these demands is the very definition of representation.
Since American society is so heterogeneous with many groups organized, or at least with the potential to be organized, around a wide range of issues and beliefs, there is no way they can be represented by any political party. To win majorities, parties must assemble and represent many interests, but trying to represent everybody means they represent nobody well. US presidents and senators have the same problem. Even House members often represent too many competing interests in their districts to be effective advocates for them all. Private organizations speaking for distinct groups of people have no need to represent any majority.
This is the potential of interest groups–they can and do provide focused representation for small groups of people organized around narrow, well-defined interests that could probably not ever be priorities for political parties. The downside, though, is that there are so many private organizations representing group interests in national politics today that the relatively small number of public officials whose attention they compete for cannot possibly respond to them all. Nor do interest groups represent all factions of the public equally. Some have more resources than others with which they can make their constituent members’ voices heard more loudly by lawmakers. And some potential constituent-members simply cannot get organized, or even realize that they had better be organized, if they want to avoid being hurt by the policies advanced by competing interest groups. What groups do share with parties and constituent-based representation in government is a disregard for the public interest.
… interest groups are considered legitimate because we believe the pursuit of self-interest is close to sacred. It probably could not be any other way in an economic system that assumes the best result for society comes when people compete with each other to satisfy their self-interest. As Jane Mansbridge observed, democratic politics in a free-market economy are usually adversarial, and this leaves no room for thinking about the common good. Indeed, there may be no common good or public interest in such a system. If we wished to eliminate interest groups and lobbying, as Madison understood, we would have to fundamentally rethink who we are and what rights and liberties we expect to enjoy in our political system. Barring such an unlikely change, it may be best to think more about how we can use interest groups and their adversarial impulse–which itself is just a reflection of our own adversarial nature–to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
… this model will show how lobbyists make decisions based on the motivations of policy members, group members, and their own ambitions. It should help answer the question … about how lobbyists balance competing group member and lawmaker pressures. It should also give some insight into lobbyists’ capacity to meaningfully represent citizen interests before government.
… understanding interest group politics means seeing lobbyists as distinct from the people they represent, even as they pursue these people’s interests … . This is not a pedantic distinction. Senators may act in ways inconsistent with the wishes of their constituents because they have to cope with demands from House members, presidents, bureaucrats, and other senators. So too with lobbyists. Indeed, it may be easier for lobbyists to be swayed by influences other than their own members because, unlike legislators, they do not have to publicly present themselves for validation or rejection in elections.
Assumption 1: Lobbyists want to advance their careers by building and maintaining personal relationships with government officials and by successfully representing member interests.
Like everyone, lobbyists have an interest they strive for; it is just that their interest may not be the same as the interests of the people they represent. They certainly have a professional interest in helping the people they are currently employed to represent, but when the needs of members clash with a lobbyist’s need to maintain good relations with lawmakers, members sometimes fail to come first. Lobbyists believe in Shakespeare’s line “To thy own self be true.”
Assumption 2: Interest group members differ in how they would ideally like to see issues important to them resolved with public policy.
Assumption 3: Some issues are more important to members than others, and they will be more likely to be angry if their ideal positions on these issues are not precisely advocated by their lobbyist.
Assumption 4: Interest group members can quit their organization and are more likely to do so the more dissatisfied they are with the choices of its lobbyist.
… In discussing the internal workings of political groups, economist Albert Hirschman (1970) made a simple but important point. When faced with a leadership that does not appear to have their best interests at heart, members may do one of three things. They may loyally support the group anyway out of regard for the good of the whole, they may try to change the group by pushing out the unresponsive lobbyists and staff, or they may just quit the group entirely and take their dues with them as they exit. Except for some unions and a few professional organizations like bar associations, interest groups do not have compulsory membership. Members may quit at any time.
Assumption 5: Lobbyists have limited resources for pursuing member interest advocacy.
Even when members are happy and pay their dues, there is another crucial limit on what lobbyists can do: money. Members only have so much money to give for group support. … most [group budgets] are not all that large, even when they are supplemented by philanthropies, foundations, wealthy individuals, and the government. The costs of mounting major advocacy campaigns can be enormous, and apart from advocacy, groups also must allocate significant parts of their budgets to the nonpolitical activities and other benefits that members demand (and that may be more important to some members than the advocacy).
Assumption 6: Only elected and appointed government officials may directly influence the government’s policy-making process.
Assumption 7: All government officials seek to achieve professional and policy goals.
Since policy maker support is critical to successful advocacy, lobbyists must find ways to persuade and pressure policy makers into acting on their members’ behalf. … whether by enticements or threats, lobbyists make arguments that are meaningful to policy makers, arguments that convince them that it is in their interests to support a policy proposal that also happens to more or less be what the lobbyist’s members want. Lobbying is the art of pursuing member interests by persuading lawmakers that their interests and member interests are one and the same.
Lobbyists start by understanding what the interests of government officials are. Members of Congress want to be reelected, or to become a senator, governor, or even president (Mayhew 1974). Many also want to make policy consistent with their own ideological beliefs, usually so they have an achievement to advertise when they run for reelection or for election to higher office (Dodd 1977). Appointed officials running administrative agencies that implement the laws Congress passes want larger budgets and less congressional oversight (Downs 1967; Balla 1998). Federal judges, and especially members of the US Supreme Court, with lifetime appointments and largely insulated from political pressures, simply want to advance their ideas of how the Constitution ought to be interpreted and how to make existing law consistent with that ideal (Segal and Spaeth 2002). Is this overly simplistic? Yes. Does this cynically rule out any notion of altruism or a desire to serve the public good? Certainly. But what this stripped-down view of policy maker motivation does provide is stated in the seventh assumption …
To summarize: group members have interests that manifest in how they want to see an issue, like how many hours a trucker can drive, resolved with public policy. But group members vary in just what they think these policy solutions should be, just as they feel more intensely about some issues than others and will be less tolerant of anything that falls short of what they consider an ideal solution. Policy makers also have interests that manifest as ideal solutions to issues, solutions that help them achieve their goals. But there is no reason to believe that members and policy makers all prefer exactly the same policy solutions, or anything even close. Lobbyists may also have personal opinions on how issues should be solved, but that is irrelevant. Never forget about Assumption 1: a lobbyist’s job is to make sure policymaker and group member interests align, or at least appear aligned, or his or her career may be in jeopardy.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases. (The First Law is that energy is conserved; the Third, that a temperature of absolute zero is unreachable.) Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.
In its original formulation the Second Law referred to the process in which usable energy in the form of a difference in temperature between two bodies is inevitably dissipated as heat flows from the warmer to the cooler body. … A cup of coffee, unless it is placed on a plugged-in hot plate, will cool down. When the coal feeding a steam engine is used up, the cooled-off steam on one side of the piston can no longer budge it because the warmed-up steam and air on the other side are pushing back just as hard.
How is entropy relevant to human affairs? Life and happiness depend on an infinitesimal sliver of orderly arrangements of matter amid the astronomical number of possibilities. Our bodies are improbable assemblies of molecules, and they maintain that order with the help of other improbabilities: the few substances that can nourish us, the few materials in the few shapes that can clothe us, shelter us, and move things around to our liking. Far more of the arrangements of matter found on Earth are of no worldly use to us, so when things change without a human agent directing the change, they are likely to change for the worse. The Law of Entropy is widely acknowledged in everyday life in sayings such as “Things fall apart,” “Rust never sleeps,” “Shit happens,” “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,” and (from the Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn) “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
Why the awe for the Second Law? From an Olympian vantage point, it defines the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.
… misfortune may be no one’s fault. A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose. In this primitive but ubiquitous understanding, everything happens for a reason, so when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine, poverty—some agent must have wanted them to happen. … Galileo, Newton, and Laplace replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. People have goals, of course, but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness.
A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. This exists in contrast to a higher-level ultimate cause (or distal cause) which is usually thought of as the “real” reason something occurred. In most situations, an ultimate cause may itself be a proximate cause for a further ultimate cause.
Yet another type of explanation lists the immediate factors that enabled Europeans to kill or conquer other peoples—especially European guns, infectious diseases, steel tools, and manufactured products. Such an explanation is on the right track, as those factors demonstrably were directly responsible for European conquests. However, this hypothesis is incomplete, because it still offers only a proximate (first-stage) explanation identifying immediate causes. It invites a search for ultimate causes: why were Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel?
Farnam Street goes into further detail by describing techniques for establishing and mapping ultimate causes.