Jan 20 2014

Political self-interest trumps the public interest


Reform Party of California Commentary

The role that self-interest plays in politics is hard to quantify. Some or many people might argue that, on balance, it plays a constructive role in politics. The Reform Party of California (RPCA) considers the net effect of the self-interest twins, i.e., political self-interest and private sector self-interest, to be essentially as detrimental as any negative force that plays a significant role in shaping U.S. politics and policy.[1]

Obviously, politicians, the two political parties and their partisan supporters strenuously argue that even if political interest does affect politics and policy, the net effect on the public interest is positive or neutral, not negative. The problem with that argument coming from the two-party system is that the public interest means whatever they say it is, so the concept of the public interest is purely subjective and thus objectively meaningless as it is used by status quo defenders.[2]

There is solid evidence that political self-interest is both real and important

On Jan. 15, 2014, the New York Times (NYT) published an article (pages A1, A17, online here) discussing politics in states with a legislature and governor’s office that are both controlled by a single political party. The gist of the article is that some, but not all, states with single-party control, the politicians are backing off of additional partisan legislative initiatives because of potential partisan overreaching coupled with impending elections. The leader of Ohio’s House of representatives had this to say about a softening of the republican agenda for the time being: “But it’s my job to make sure that what we want to do is something that is valued by the citizenry — especially in even-numbered years.” What about the odd-numbered years and whose values are served then? And why the concern about even-numbered years? Simple, elections are held in even-numbered years. A reasonable conclusion is that in odd-numbered years, incumbent politicians serve themselves and in even-numbered years they take a rest. This situation reflects political self-interest driven by the obvious partisan drive for re-election. Does that tactic primarily serve the public interest or political self-interest?

In states dominated by a single party, the current politicians presumably campaigned and won on their partisan arguments, including their partisan ideological legislative agenda. If that reflects service to the public interest, which it should because the public elected them, then why pull back or soften the partisan tone or aggressiveness just because 2014 is an even-numbered year?[3] In theory, a legislative slowdown or softening would not serve the public interest because that arguably isn’t what the voters voted for. The most reasonable conclusion the RPCA can draw is that sitting incumbents put their re-election before the public interest. Obviously, those incumbents would see that as a very unreasonable conclusion, but that difference of opinion arguably reflects the power of political self-interest to distort perceptions of reality, which is another unpleasant aspect of how political self-interest corrupts politics.

The NYT article also quoted this from the republican majority leader of the Wisconsin state Senate: “As you get closer to circulating nominating petitions, you get people who are nervous about taking on certain policy issues right before an election. Anyone who says that isn’t true is lying.” If that isn’t clear evidence of political self-interest dictating political action, of a lack thereof, then what is? The question here is the same as it was for Ohio: Does this kind of politics best serve the public interest or political self-interests? You decide.


1. This is not an assertion that  political self-interest and private sector interests, usually fueled by campaign contributions, have no legitimate role in politics. They do. Government has a role in serving the public, and special interests are a part of the public. Despite the acknowledged legitimate role, the RPCA believes that the balance between service to the public interest and special-interests is tipped too far in favor of special interests. That arguably is to the detriment to the public interest and the overall general welfare. That opinion is not unique to the RPCA. Recent opinion poll data show that a majority of the public believes that both parties, special interests and special interest money exert too much influence on politics. Some of that belief is grounded in belief that America’s campaign finance system is broken. The belief that self-interest plays an undue, negative role in politics arguably is mainstream opinion, not irrelevant radicalism.

2. The RPCA rejects the self-serving terms of debate the two-party system routinely posits for public consumption. That is nothing more than a reflection of the self-interest that typifies a sick two-party system. Specifically, when an interested party such as the democratic party, republican party or their politicians or partisans define terms of debate such as “the public interest”, they absolutely will define it so that it serves their interests, e.g., by pandering to an ideological partisan base or by appeasing campaign contributors. It is possible to inject at least some objectivity into the concept of the public interest. The use of objective definitions for key terms of debate rarely serves the narrower interests of the two-party system, so it is no surprise that key terms of debate are often meaningless, except of course in the mind of the person using it for his or her own interests.

3. To be blunt, asking incumbent politicians to keep on keeping on, even in election years arguably jeopardizes their chances of reelection. That is why they don’t. Does it ask too much of them to do what they were ostensibly elected to do, even at the cost of their office? The RPCA does not think that asks too much. The failure of incumbents to be honest about who and what they are, both in campaigns and in on office, inflicts great harm to the public interest. If politicians were to be consistent in both how they campaigned, including their promises, and in how they govern, simple logic or common sense says that those politicians would sound and act a whole lot differently, i.e., they would be far less ideological, rigid and ineffective than they are now. If they were consistent, then most long-serving politicians would be ones who appeal to a very different audience than what deceiver politicians appeal to at election time, especially at primary election time. Think about it – the logic is sound and defensible.