As the debate over net neutrality, franchise reform, and assorted fragments of telecom legislation continues on Capitol Hill, a meta-consideration, as follows:
From Madison's "factions" to Jonathan Rauch's "special interests" and the rent-seekers described by public choice economists like James Buchanan, we are all sophisticates now; we have lost our illusions about democracy. What happens in the legislature will be at best a balancing of factions and interests, mostly monied. This is just what legislatures do, right? Their job is to balance these interests. A and B earnestly petition the legislature, each arguing for some benefit, and so the legislature gives something to A, and something to B. It is all about this sort of compromise.
Wrong. Certainly, this happens. But it is a grave error to think that this is the proper function of a legislature. Each of
us has a special interest, certainly, but that is the least important type of self-interest when it comes to public policy. The most important interest is the interest that each of us has in choosing the best rule for the group as a whole. This is what the Constitution describes as "general welfare," what the economist F.A. Hayek described as the rule that would in future maximize the most opportunities for the greatest number of people, what Rawls was trying to capture when he spoke of choosing rules through a "veil." It is easy to pick a rule that benefits a given individual today, but suppose you were choosing a rule for someone, and you did not know who that person was, or anything about their situation? That will bring us closest to what economist describe as "group interest" or "constitution interest." And this is the hardest type of interest to grasp, especially through the thicket of lawyers and lobbyists each claiming to describe it clearly. Because, of course, the key players know exactly how they are situated today. Rawl's veils are in short supply.
But the difficulty in perceiving that interest does not mean that it is not there.
We can hope that when A and B petition the legislature, that they will each raise arguments that will shed light on the question of what the general interest is, apart from their special interests. Nonprofits (including PFF) populated by people trying to keep larger goals and the long run in mind can help. But it would be helpful if legislators--and journalists--at least believed there was something outside party politics and balance and compromise.
(It would be even better if that something were freedom--not the anarchist's freedom but the freedom to cooperate through markets--but that is too much for one day).