Why Interest Groups Hold Power

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American sports fanatics crowd around their televisions every Monday night to cheer on their favorite buff men tackling each other on Monday Night Football, the most popular cable broadcast on Mondays. Sports fans will study box scores and put their real emotions and money on the line for fantasy sports competitions.

This same passionate group can pressure city politicians to support economically unfeasible stadium construction projects. If they can’t see games live, they drive up the costs of cable TV because sports channels such as ESPN are by far the most expensive channel in a bundled cable package. Meanwhile, the public pays taxes that fund expensive stadium construction projects. The public, non-sports-watching cable subscribers subsidize the cost of sports channels.

When Minorities Rule

When a group of individuals with commonly shared interests choose to organize and push political policies, they can generate significant clout when the masses aren’t paying attention. This is how special interest groups rise to power. The key word here is “organize”.  Each member of the group enjoys significant benefits, reinforcing his/her commitment to become the loudest voices during election cycles.

The Greedy Farmers

Another powerful interest group are United States farmers that enjoy government agricultural subsidies, funded by taxpayers. These subsidies add up to huge costs in aggregate, but the average cost to each citizen (sometimes in the form of higher prices or higher taxes) is insignificant, and so goes unnoticed in most election cycles.

The Pretentious Longtime Residents

Longtime residents of a community engage in selfish NIMBYism (“Not In My Backyard”), pressuring politicians to maintain real estate zoning regulations that restrict new housing development. In the city of Los Angeles, zoning codes that hadn’t changed since the 1940’s created a city where 78% of the residential land was zoned for single-family housing. The inability to build high-density, high-rise homes has led to a strict housing supply shortage leading to Los Angeles tenants experiencing the highest rent rate in the country – on average, 47% of their gross income is spent on rent. The longtime residents love this deal – their housing values go up and their neighborhoods are free of construction. So they’ll continue voting in favor of outdated zoning codes.

earth scraper in mexico city
Architects in Mexico City design a “Earth-scraper”, a 65-story structure that plunges below ground in order to get around city height limits on new buildings in the capital city.

Interest group can be much more sophisticated, knowledgeable, and united than the average non-organized citizen. Political Scientist Steven Teles explains that “interest groups usually form not in anticipation of government action, but in response to government action.”  For example, “the elderly were not really organized before Social Security. They got organized as a consequence of Social Security.” This causes political systems to have a natural bias toward what’s already been done, because the people benefitting from an arrangement will be the first and loudest to cry out when a benefit gets pulled. The people who might want a change to the current system, meanwhile, are relatively unmobilized. Even if they are able to organize, they face immediate opposition by the organized beneficiaries of the old ways.

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