How much power do you have over the running of your country?
A little? A bit? A lot?
Admittedly, it’s rather hard to quantify. But most people would argue that in a democracy, everyone has some power, however slight. Philosophically speaking, every member of the electorate actually has just as must power as any other; one man, one vote.
But although we may be unable to quantify our influence over government, it’s probably fair to say that you’ve more power than your average veiled Saudi woman or goose-stepping North Korean. But I happen to disagree… Or at least believe the influence of your average Briton is virtually negligible.
But if we’ve virtually no power over our government, where does the power lie? And why doesn’t lie with the people?
I shall explain throughout this post, but please do not believe that power resides solely with civil servants and politicians. They are the actors, but others write the scripts. And of course, there’s an audience too, who think the whole show’s being performed just for their benefit. Taking forward this analogy (which I really wish I’d thought of last week…), I’ll discuss the script writers and the audience today, and use this to explain the nature of power in the UK today.
I’m going to begin with the writers, who both control the actions of the actors, and watch as members of the audience. They are the interest groups, and range from nationwide trade unions and trans-national corporations to more local associations who campaign on smaller issues. They are the single most powerful body in our society, although the nature of the groups may vary between countries; corporations wield more power in the US that the UK, while trade and labour unions are stronger here.
To understand where they draw their power from, you must appreciate that all humans are principally self-interested. An individual joins an interest group because he believes they have the ability to further his own aims ie. provide him with an advantage for which he will not bear a large cost, but will enjoy a large benefit (or, conversely, prevent others receiving an advantage for which they’ll enjoy a large benefit, but he a large cost). Similarly, a politician or civil servant will only bother listening to one of these groups if they believe doing so will yield a large benefit and small cost, or not doing so will incur a small (if any) benefit and high cost.
Okay, fine, but this principle hardly seems to suggest that interest groups are omnipotent…
Well, the power of any interest groups is dependent upon its ability to benefit or harm a politician or civil servant. Fifty mothers protesting over the closure of an afterschool club won’t cause anywhere near as much political worry as five public sector union bosses promising widespread strike action, for example. And a relatively large and powerful terrorist group, such as the IRA, will lead to more sleepless nights than a group of bearded communists sitting in tents outside St Pauls’.
The most powerful groups are usually those which bankroll political parties, and often their lobbying takes place quietly, behind closed doors and rarely appears in the media. By contrast, the weakest are usually those who are forced to take to the streets with banners, flags and drums. For politicians, giving into such pressure appears to weaken their position, which may lose them more votes than they’d gain from backing the protesters in the first place.
The result is that many politicians are little more than an interest group’s representative at the decision making table. Civil servants, likewise, receive many a kickback for helping to draft legislation in certain ways, subtly benefiting one group over another. It is worth noting that they face less occupation hazard than politicians; groups can do less harm to their careers through public image, because they simply lack one.
So where does this leave the audience; the humble British voter?
He’s placed in a very undesirable position, without even realising it. Firstly, he’s often forced to pay (through tax) for something which benefits a small but powerful minority, but not himself. A clear example is that tax paid by a Brummie is given to Transport for London through a grant by the government, who then gives it tube drivers. The Brummie, like tens of millions of Britons, pays an almost unnoticeable cost for something which he virtually never uses, but which results in a very nice pay-package for a small minority backed by a very powerful interest group. The cost is diffused, but the benefit remains concentrated.
Secondly, the voter has virtually no power to decide the outcome of a national election. When an individual votes in the UK, they usually do so out of principle or a feeling of obligation. They do not spend hours analysing party manifestos, consuming bookshelves of philosophical literature, and comparing the relative leadership qualities of each potential Prime Minister and cabinet, as might be appropriate if they were the sole decider on who governed. It’s simply not worth the effort, which comes back to the belief that humans are self-interested. If my vote is going to make such a tiny difference in this election, why is it even worth me voting, let alone bothering to learn about the candidates? Buchannan called this rational ignorance; literally, it’s rational for voters to remain ignorant of politics. Only those who enjoy politics as a hobby or pastime, or feel it is their duty to take an interest, will bother voting.
What this eventually creates is a highly elitist system, in which small interest groups use politicians and civil servants to engineer themselves advantages, and lump the costs onto the ignorant and unsuspecting masses.
In my following post, I will discuss how this system of lobbying and rent-seeking could potentially be broken, should the will for small government be harnessed properly.