‘Regular Joes’ and elites should team up against special interests

People like to believe their side is the underdog. And many people see themselves as underdogs, believing the top dogs in politics are the elites. That is, the people who matter to policy are those who went to top colleges, who manage important institutions, who write the columns of major publications, who get jobs in presidential administrations.

But elitist views don’t dictate policy. Or at least, not that many of them do.

Take the federal Jones Act, which puts “Made in America” requirements on ships that move goods between domestic ports. This isn’t policy because of elite opinion. In fact, I would bet that many elites hate it. And the “regular Joe” who pays the price ought to hate it as well. But this law remains on the books because domestic shipping companies don’t want competition and receive a concentrated benefit from the preference. Both populists and elites should hate this law.

They also ought to hate liquor control policies that guarantee monopoly profits to just a few wholesalers and distributors without protecting public health. These laws mean less competition and higher prices, yet the advantages remain because of entrenched special interests.

Both elites and regular people ought to hate that occupational licensing rules are designed to protect the few people working in an occupation from competition, rather than to protect public health and safety. These laws stifle market competition while limiting consumer choices and hindering people who want to get a shot at work.

These and many other issues are not elites versus the public. They are cases where entrenched special interests use policy to collect benefits at the public’s expense.

It’s special interests that often have the biggest say in Washington and state capitals. Sometimes they are run by elites. Still, they get their way not because of elitism, but out of sheer self-interest. They’ve already captured public policy for their own benefit, and this concentrated benefit allows them to dedicate time and money into making sure public policy doesn’t shift against them.

Policy can get used and abused to deliver money and favors to special interests. Those who care about a fair public policy playing field should agree that special interests control too much policy, which is bad for the country.

Ordinary Americans can have a big influence in politics when they can unite around a policy solution. Politicians want to be popular. Get enough people to care about something and the people’s elected representatives will follow. There is plenty for them to unite over.

Unfortunately, voters tend to be distracted by partisan agitations focused on winning elections and overcoming opposition. Attention gets redirected away from the issues where people can be united and toward partisan differences.

There are issues and ideas where people on the right and the left are not going to get along. But there is way too much in public policy that is determined by crass self-interest more than by partisan ideology.  

Many laws and regulations are designed to deliver benefits to special interests at the public’s expense. It shouldn’t be this way. There ought to be more support for getting rid of the advantages a narrow subset of people has pushed into law. Regular Joes and elites should team up against these special interests who are defending laws that can harm the public to benefit the few. 

James M. Hohman is director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich., and host of “The Overton Window” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHohman.