The Origin of Interest Groups

It has always been fashionable to lament the decline of morals and decency. Every generation has had some variation of the “kids these days” trope. Applying this folk wisdom to modern century politics, the rise of special-interest groups during the 20th century must certainly have been a disturbing development to witness. Even today, it seems like pressure groups grow more powerful with every election cycle. What is happening to our democracy?

Whatever is going on, moral decay has little to do with it. On pp. 285-6 of their classic Calculus of Consent, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock offer a much more realistic theory on why K Street is what it is:

A hypothesis explaining the increasing importance of the pressure group over the last half century need not rest on the presumption of a decline in the public morality. A far simpler and much more acceptable hypothesis is that interest-group activity, measured in terms of organizational costs, is a direct function of the “profits” expected from the political process by functional groups.

In other words, if the amount of money in politics disturbs you, then you should advocate for less politics. Just as bank robbers go where the money is, so do rent-seekers.

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