The inordinate influence of special interest groups

Illustration: María Elena (Mani) Hinojosa

In democratic societies, relatively small special interest groups have always had a curious advantage over the larger population when it comes to influencing policy. The reason is that they’re very passionate about their cause, whereas the rest of the population, even if an interest group’s agenda happened to be somewhat detrimental to its interests, is often mostly indifferent to it, insufficiently informed to care either way, or simply less passionate about it. And thus politicians have nothing to gain by opposing special interest groups, and much to lose by doing so, as special interest groups will naturally move to vote en masse for whichever politician or party is willing to support them.

A good example of this is the Cuban-American lobby and its outsized influence on U.S. policy. The U.S. embargo against Cuba has been in place for over 50 years (with a partial and short-lived lift during the Obama years), and doesn’t have much of anything to show for it. Whatever its merits, let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that lifting it is determined by most economists and foreign-policy experts to be a good thing for the U.S. (e.g., business opportunities, exports to Cuba, a new tourist destination, freedom to travel wherever Americans wish). The Cuban-American lobby could still manage to keep it in place. As Charles Wheelan explains in his book “Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science”:

It may seem unfair or unreasonable that small groups have such a disproportionate influence, but in fact this political dynamic could be seen as democracy functioning precisely as it should, since it tends to promote legislation and policies that reflect what people really care about. Be that as it may, it is not likely to change: politicians have little incentive to stop catering to the wishes — even dubious ones — of small interest groups, whose votes they wouldn’t otherwise be able to secure.

It may be thought that social media, by diffusing everything far more widely and easily than was the case in the past, can weaken special interests groups: increased awareness in the general public might cause it to oppose the agendas of special interest groups if it finds them contrary to its interests and preferences. But social media enlarges everything, and does it in proportion to how relevant or popular each item competing for our attention is to begin with. Thus such agendas are likely to just be buried under the torrent of news and opinions that people care more about — as little noticed as before our social media era.

This article, which illustrates the points made, discusses the strength of the Cuba lobby:

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