August 2010

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What’s So Special?

by Bruce A. Clark

We hear complaints all of the time about special interests and all of their evils. Lots of people are persuaded that there is a problem here and that something needs to be done about it. What persuades them? Nothing, really, just empty talk by people who either don’t understand the necessity of full, public political discussions, or by people deliberately trying to undermine the political process.

So what’s the definition of a special interest? There isn’t a good, recognized one, but people seem to think it has something to do with some essentially self-serving group purveying its ideas and foisting them on the rest of us. I think that the reality is something different, and I’m going to offer a definition:

A special interest is some group that is more successful at moving its ideas 
than we are at moving ours.

Surely, that is a cynical definition! However, it’s backed up by years of experience and consideration. However, I think it’s possible to come up with a better, non-so-cynical one, but not until we clear up some related concepts.


Looking at the political lay of the land in the United States today, we see millions of people motivated by the concept of “I have a right to my opinion!!” Well, they do. Unfortunately, far too many of them also have the idea that others also have a right to their opinions, but only if they are ineffective at persuading people.

I’ll say, moreover, that this has for too long been official US policy.

And even with some unpopular causes:

More recently, there have been bills before Congress that stated that certain “special interests” couldn’t participate in political campaigns in the periods close to elections, while not restricting others.

From the Left and Right

We can see a little of the rationale behind the idea that any successful opposition is a “special interest” by viewing the latest tactics in political argument:

It’s unfortunate that many people have opinions based upon emotions, or upon some ideology that might not be currently relevant, or upon what they have heard in the radio or Internet that they have not checked out for accuracy. It’s worse that they dishonestly attack opponents to their views or try to restrict the ability of their opponents and suggest they they are some “special interest” and not as they really are, just other participants in the political debates of this country.

Another Approach

I suggest that all of those who are tempted to label this or that organization or group as a “special interest” look a little deeper. There might, indeed, be a true classification that deserves to be called a “special interest,” but it’s probably different from what has been used in the past. It involves asking oneself a few questions:

  1. Is the group or organization a membership organization, composed of individual voters?
  2. Is the group or organization democratic, in which individual members have a vote?
  3. Is the group or organization sponsored by another group that does not have either of the above characteristics?
  4. Does the group or organization have a program similar to groups or organizations that do have either of the first two characteristics?

For example, are labor unions “special interests?” Look at their history. Unions have been movers of many of the things we take for granted:

Unions would be better qualified a “general interest” organizations than “special interest” groups. Whatever the flaws of unions — and they have had and still do have some serious flaws, especially in terms of internal democracy — they are far better than the dictatorial corporation.

What about that favorite whipping boy of liberals, the National Rifle Association (NRA)? The fact is that since its formation in 1871, it has been a membership organization. Whatever the organization’s views, it expresses the opinions of people, voters, its members. It is funded by its members. Its officers are elected by its members, via its constitution. It is a single-issue organization, strongly supporting the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. Since the Bill of Rights belongs to all Americans, I can’t see how the NRA can possibly be considered a “special interest” organization. One has the right to debate opinions, but one does not have the right to rule that the views of millions of Americans, NRA members and supporters, are somehow “special” and should not be fully admitted to all facets of the democratic discussion.

Now comes some slightly different types of organizations, often characterized as “special interests.” The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) is the industrial association and lobbying group for those businesses in the shooting sports. That means gun and ammunition manufacturers, shooting ranges, companies that make duck and turkey calls, hunting clothing, deer stands, gunsmiths, targets, and all of the rest of the things involved in the shooting sports, including support for the US Olympic Teams in the shooting sports. The goals of the NSSF are usually, but not always in accord of the NRA and other Second Amendment rights groups. Is the NSSF a “special interest?” I would say yes! What’s the difference?

Some History

Back in the Renaissance, when Europe was coming out of the Dark Ages and beginning the march toward the modern world, the kingdoms and cities therein were faced with major developments that needed to be done to move those societies forward. Some of those involved civil engineering, some were international trade, and some were colonization. The royal families that governed those kingdoms were always short of cash. They wanted business interests to put up money for these projects to supplement what the royals had available.

The budding capitalists said that they were interested, but there were some problems. Existing laws said that investors were personally liable for the costs of the failure of any enterprise, and that the capitalists said that they were not interested in contributing to some venture if a possible failure would ruin them.

A compromise was worked out: in exchange for entering into a venture that had some benefit to the society, the capitalists would only be liable to the extent of the funds they had contributed to underwrite it. In other words, if there was no criminality involved, an investor might lose his or her investment, but nothing else.

Thus was born the modern corporation, with examples the Dutch East India Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the British East India Company, and the Hudson Bay Company. Such an organization became defined under the law as a fictitious person. A corporation was an artificial person that subsumed the individualities of the investors of that corporation, and that definition continues down to the present day.

Separating Reality from Fiction

I would suggest that the only groups or organizations that qualify for being “special interests” are those in which the members are fictitious persons, as opposed to “real” persons, born of woman. It might be that some corporate lobbying groups have some members that are real people, but I would suggest that those “real” members are decorative, and likely to be either corporate officers, stockholders or those who have been pressured to contribute, in exchange for keeping their jobs or for corporate advancement. The real distinction between “real” and “fictitious” persons who make up such interest groups is: can they vote??

We are also faced with another unfortunate difficulty in defining who are the legitimate participants in the great national discussions. As a result of a character­ization in a footnote to a 19th century Supreme Court decision, corporations have been presumed to have the same rights as real people, and that has been reinforced by more recent Supreme Court decisions. The result is that “real” people must be creative in their attempts to qualify who is and who is not a legitimate participant in the national debates. If we update the definition of “special interest” to this, we stand a much better chance of accomplishing the intended goal without hurting democracy.

Handling Special Interests

If the Supreme Court, in its great error, has decided that fictitious persons have the same rights as real persons, how do we combat that? We can’t electorally remove Supreme Court justices. So the electorate must be creative in dealing with the decision until a Supreme Court with some sense rules differently.

We can control the behavior of our elected legislators, if we take the time and give the effort necessary for the task. We can say to our legislators that we want your pledge that all of your meetings with lobbyists representing business be held in public and be open to anyone who wishes to listen in. That way, legitimate input of information from business into government can be preserved, and secret dealings with legislators can be banned. We can also say that we will be watching, and that we will recall them and replace them if they fail to pledge, or violate it, once made. We can also push the legislators to incorporate such behavior toward special interests into the rules of the assemblies, at the local, state and national levels.

Our democracy, in the form of a republic, is in a sad state. It has always been under stress. But fixing it, one part at a time, is possible, but only if we stop fighting each other and start insisting that only real people and not special interests are the principle motivators.