What’s wrong with political lobbying?

Many people think that lobbying is unhealthy. Can political philosophy help to make sense of this sentiment?

The political realm is special

Our public laws are supposed to be based on the general or common good. I might find taxation annoying. But to persuade others to change the law, I need to invoke something slightly more general than my personal feelings. I need to explain how others might benefit from any change. For instance, with lower taxes I might be more productive or give more money to worthy causes.

Another important feature of politics is that it should be insulated from the effects of economic inequality. People who are perfectly happy with the general ‘ripping’ of markets don’t think that vote-buying is acceptable or that those with the deepest pockets should get their political way.

In addition, every eligible citizen is entitled to one, and only one, vote, no matter how esteemed, wealthy or indeed stupid or poor they are. And we only give people votes. We don’t think ‘interests’ (like the City) or institutions (like the universities) should have representatives in parliament.

 

In short, politics is about the common good, based on the idea of people’s fundamental equality, and should be insulated from economic inequalities. By these standards how does lobbying fare? Frankly, not well.

With some simplification, we can understand lobbying as follows: some private company (X) hires lobby firm We-Can-Fix-It to influence etc. minister Y to make decision Z because Z favours X’s own interests.

What seems wrong here? First, X’s private interests may not coincide with the common good. Second, lobbyists charge and not everyone can afford their fees. Third, is secrecy. We-Can-Fix-It is unlikely to publish the content of its meetings with minister Y. And even if it wanted to, the minister would probably not let it. The citizens, then, may never know that any lobbying has occurred.

Expertize

While this might seem like an open-and-shut case against lobbying we should not be so quick. Private companies may lobby for their own advantage, but many are experts in their field. Take banking reform. Banks’ input is vital here to test what might, and what will not, work.

In short, lobbying enables expertize to be heard and so can improve political decisions. But a problem remains. Banking illustrates it well. The aim of banking reforms is to make the sector work better for customers and society at large. The aim of Barclays or Santander is to increase its own profits. These difference may unconsciously bias a bank’s disinterested expertise. We should remember that after a generation of banks lobbying for self-regulation we had the largest economic crisis for over 60 years.

One way to reduce experts’ bias, and correct their errors, is through publicity and transparency. This implies the prompt publication of details (with minutes) of lobbyists’ meetings with ministers and other decision-makers.

A right to lobby

For some, expertize has got nothing to do with the permissibility of lobbying. Like voters, businesses have a right to lobby. We might understand this right as follows: individuals club together and transfer their democratic rights to some group such as We-Can-Fix-It to exercise their rights for them.

In reply, two points: as you can only transfer a right that already exists only voters can have this right to lobby. Non-voters, and this probably includes the heads of many major businesses, are excluded. Second, remember democracies represent people. Institutions – whether they are run by voters or not – are not people and so don’t have any democratic rights which can be transferred.

So, should the head of Barclays be able to meet the PM? Her or she is certainly entitled to the respectful reading of a well-crafted (open) letter. But if there is a meeting, minutes must be kept and published promptly. Of course none of this will happen. But it is important that someone explain why it shouldn’t happen – and we need to remember that any such explanation must be couched in terms of our common good and compatible with our political equality.

2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with political lobbying?

  1. Nicola H

    You make some interesting points here but l doubt publishing minutes of meetings would change the situation. Much can be said in and around a meeting that is not minuted, in some cases rightly so for the sake of an open and frank exchange. Alternatively, the restrictions would be bypassed by delegating meetings down the line – special advisers meeting with CEOs etc. Where would you draw the line as to which meetings were reported? I can see a case for publishing lists of meetings but not the detail of their content. I also wonder whether you would apply the same thinking to charities lobbying on behalf of their beneficiaries? I’m sure you will have read about the charity sector’s concerns re the lobbying act.

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    1. Dean Machin Post author

      Dear Nicola

      Thank you for your comments. In reply, there is no reason why delegated meetings should change anything. SPADs are purely ministers’ creatures so the rules that apply to ministers apply to SPADs. The issue is sanctions: if SPADs have un-minuted meetings, their ministers should be punished. This should be based on public rules, not discretion. It would only have to happen once or twice for SPADs to learn their lesson.

      Second, I see no reason why the constraints I identify should not apply to charities. The only legitimate reason I can see for charities not wishing their lobbying to be public is where specific (probably vulnerable) individuals can be identified. But personal data rules can cover this & many charities can couch their lobbying in sufficiently general form such that this may not be a problem. Plus, we should avoid the general presumption that charities’ lobbying is good and private companies’ lobbying is bad.

      Clearly, there are tensions here: rules like those I identify would lead to the loss of some benefits. But, overall, would the rules improve our politics? I think so, you are less sure. But let us do the experiment to find out.

      Best,

      Dean

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