When Perfect Is the Enemy of Progressives

The always enjoyable Christopher Hayes writes:

While the Republican Party shrinks, corporate interests are deftly molting their old K Street Project skin and crawling en masse inside the big tent being pitched by the Democratic Party. These same corporate interests have always had a purchase on Democrats, of course. But for much of the last decade, business interests had the luxury of spending most of their resources aiding their allies in the GOP.
No more. Writing on The Atlantic’s website, Scott Bland and Ronald Brownstein identify the emergence of what they dub “The Democratic Industrial Complex.” Energy and healthcare companies, automakers and banks all understand that the Democrats control much of their fate, so they’ve cast their lot with the majority party in a big way: John Kerry got less than 20 percent of the donations from electric utilities; Barack Obama got almost 60 percent. So far in this cycle, Democrats have captured two-thirds of the donations from the healthcare industry.
If big business’s old legislative strategy was centered on relentless opposition to progressive initiatives—an approach that continues in areas like EFCA—the new strategy is to subvert legislation through co-optation, as in healthcare and cap and trade. By converting themselves, ostensibly, from opponents to “partners,” corporate lobbies are trying to have it both ways: to block reforms while changing overt power struggles over the future of the economy into seemingly cooperative negotiations. At these negotiations, to use the president’s favorite phrase, “everyone has a seat at the table”—except, the lobbyists get by far the best seats.

Obviously Chris and I approach the underlying policy issues at play from different perspectives. I’d like to see the Employee Free Choice Act fail. The same goes for cap and trade. On all sorts of issues big and small, however, the interests of the American people are subverted by corporate lobbyists. Our agricultural policy is perhaps the most catastrophic example. Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias recently noted the absurd patent extensions passed at the behest of a few big stakeholders. Other examples abound. So I wish Mr. Hayes and his progressive allies luck drawing attention to the influence exerted by lobbyists and the industries that employ them.

But I wish that progressives would realize that parties with a narrow vested interest in a legislative outcome are always going to enjoy an advantage over the diffuse interests of the populace, and especially that portion of the populace that is without power. Community organizing is never going to change this basic fact, nor is any campaign finance reform that passes constitutional muster, nor is a bigger Democratic majority in Congress. Long experience makes this clear. In fact, the best way to significantly reduce the ability of special interests to pass legislation damaging to the American people is to reduce government.

I am not saying that progressives, given their priorities, would be best served by abandoning all the legislation they’d like to pass. But take something like the tax code. One approach is for progressives to wonk out and craft their ideal tax code, including the marginal rates that they prefer, the incentives they’d like to see in the form of deductions, etc. Let’s call that Tax Code X. The inevitable result of pursuing Tax Code X is that it goes through the legislative process, is subject to compromise, gets amended in later years in small ways, and ends up with a bunch of advantages for the most powerful special interest groups — largely corporations and rich individuals. Let’s call that Tax Code Y.

If progressives took my insights to heart, they’d assess the nature of government and pursue a different strategy from the beginning — it would prioritize passing a tax code the simplicity of which naturally resists add-ons, the manipulation of complicated provisions, constant additions, etc. This simple code — call it Tax Code Z — wouldn’t be as attractive to progressives as Tax Code X, but it would be far superior to Tax Code Y. Indeed, given our real world tax code, I think progressives would better effect the sort of changes they themselves seek by agitating for simplification rather than carefully crafted additions. They’d be better off trying to move incrementally from where we’re at to Tax Code Z—and worse off trying to move incrementally from where we’re at to Tax Code X. Geez, that’s a lot of variables. I hope if I’ve flubbed this hypothetical it’s at least an attempt that conveys my underlying point.

Obviously my general analysis doesn’t hold for every issue. I am sure that by progressive lights, it sometimes makes sense to pursue a complicated piece of legislation. At the same time, I think progressives would benefit, alongside the rest of us, if their movement put a higher premium on simplifying government, making it transparent, and avoiding the implementation of structures certain to be captured by special interests at some point, no matter how elegant or appealing their initial design. I’d like to think that conservatives and progressives could find areas of compromise along these lines, fighting over the shape of legislation, but agreeing that whatever results should be simple, transparent, and intentionally designed to stay that way. Perhaps it is more realistic to note that this is one area where liberaltarian cooperation seems possible.