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stigmatizing lobbying

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Just a quick thought (Sunlight’s about to head out to a company outing at Nationals Park), but via Matt, this Luigi Zingales quote hit a chord:

When the economist Milton Friedman famously said the one and only responsibility of business is to increase its profits, he added “so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” That’s a very big caveat, and one that is not stressed nearly enough in our business schools.

Lobbying to secure a competitive advantage from the government certainly does not represent “open and free competition.” Similarly, preying on customers’ addictions or cognitive limitations constitutes deception, if not outright fraud. Not to mention using clients’ confidential information for personal gain, manipulating a major interest-rate benchmark such as Libor, or selling financial products you know to be flawed.

Emphasis mine. This has been an idea I’ve been noodling on for a while: that stigmatizing corporations’ presence in DC — whether through direct purchases of lobbying or involvement in trade groups — might be a productive path for activists.  By this I mean to distinguish the stigmatization of lobbying, lobbyists and specific instances of corruption or malign influence (which everyone already hates) from the stigmatization of being here at all.

There’ve been recent, successful actions in opposition to corporate involvement in politics, but at the moment there’s no realistic legislative or judicial path to constraining their influence.  Maybe I’m kidding myself, but “stop gaming the system” seems like a viably nonpartisan message.

Also relevant to this is the work of my colleague Lee Drutman, whose dissertation makes a convincing argument that the appropriate time to intervene in these matters is before an industry decides to head to Washington (Lee shows that once an industry sets up shop in DC they tend to stick around, even as the presence of their concerns on the policymaking calendar diminish) — though presumably there’d need to be efforts to disarm existing lobbies (Google & co. aren’t going to be willing to sit on their hands while the long-established IP and telecom lobbies make trouble for them).

Anyway, something to consider.

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Tom Lee

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By Tom Lee