Sunday, October 1, 2023

Lobbyists, Oligarchy, and the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Lobbyists, Oligarchy, and the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Peter Schultz


            I am reading an informative book, American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class, by Ron Formisano. He makes a powerful case that money is key to the American oligarchy, to maintaining it and getting it to function for the wealthy. “Lobbyists together with the interests they represent are now the Fourth Estate.” [65] This seems to be quite sensible, even self-evident. But more may be said.


            Perform in your mind a thought experiment. Remove all the lobbyists et. al., and the money they would spend and ask whether the policies of the government change? Formisano implies, without much argument, that the answer would be “Yes.” But there is room for doubt.


            As Formisano notes: “The ‘gift economy’ is ‘so sophisticated that even people inside it feel it is a culture of goodwill and not the auctioning off of the public welfare.’” [62] And if it’s not the auctioning off of the public welfare, then it is obviously the prevailing conception of the public welfare that’s the problem. What’s needed, therefore, is a different conception of the public welfare.


            The lobbyists, et. al., are merely reflections of a particular conception of the public welfare. Lobbyists or even money are not “the dogs;” rather, they are “the dog’s tail.” The “dog” is the glorification of wealth, which reflects the glorification of power as the heart of political life. Once you embrace power, concentrated, pervasive power as the key, the essence of political life, wealth will be pursued to the detriment of other phenomena, such as community, equality, justice, and even peace, because wealth is power. If wars generate wealth, wars will be waged – even if they aren’t winnable. It’s that simple.


            Of course, lobbyists and the wealthy have too much power. But lobbyists and the wealthy aren’t at the root of our problems. Rather, the root is power. As Lawrence Lessig says, our politicians are “decent,” “good people working in a corrupt system…. The enemy is well dressed.” Read: the enemy is respectable. Exactly, because it is the decent and the good who embrace power, and those who acquire power are respectable.  


            As a result, in the trio the good, the bad, and the ugly the differences between these types disappear when the good allow themselves to be seduced by the desire for power. Political life, built on and around power, will be good, bad, and ugly all at once. Political power can never transcend the good, the bad, and the ugly. Political power needs leavening, say, by beauty, if it’s to be humane.


[Consult here, e.g., Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the novels of Jane Austen.]

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