Democracy and Power 114: The Power Players

Who actually controls the force of government? Politicians and interest groups control the American political process. Special-interest groups – i.e. big business, small business, big unions, education, seniors, and a multitude of others – seek favors: tax breaks, subsidies, exclusive legislation, etc. Interest groups give enormous amounts of money to political campaigns and receive gigantic benefits in return.

Benjamin Franklin understood the relationship between special-interests and the rulers as well as the inherent danger to all forms of government. Franklin warned his fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention:

There will always be a party for giving more to the rulers, that the rulers may be able in return to give more to them. Hence as all history informs us, there has been in every State & Kingdom, a constant kind of warfare between the governing & governed: the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less. And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the Princes, or enslaving of the people. Generally indeed the ruling power carries its point, the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more.

In Federalist Paper Number 10, James Madison addressed the universal problem of groups seeking the power of government versus the best interest of all the citizens.

By a faction (interest group), I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Madison, seeking to stop the menace of factions, proffered that representative government, because of the diverse interest of professions and regions, would prevent coalescence from being a force in the federal government. Madison opined that America’s elected representatives would “discern the true interest of their country.” Unfortunately, Madison was ultimately wrong, special-interest politics currently prevails in America. Politicians and special-interests in their quest for power naturally coalesced and traded their votes for money and power. Special-interest legislation becomes law, and government confers benefits to a special few at the expense of all citizens resulting in an ever-expanding government and an entrenched interest group.