Last summer I tried to tease out the complications of adopting libertarian-populist standards. The self-dealing of, say, an aluminum company lobbying for and benefiting from fuel-efficiency regulations seems, on its face, sleazy and reprehensible. But what, I asked, can be done to avoid such conflicts of interest when there is a public good being pursued?
[D]id Obamacare’s architects desire to turn insurance companies into public utilities as a policy end in itself—or was it a means of broadening access to medical insurance (a goal the public generally favors)? …
After September 11, the Bush administration and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers concluded it was in the national interest to invade two countries. A giant new security apparatus slowly spread its tentacles across American life. Defense contractors and security consultants dine out on this policy sea change to this day. One can argue until one is blue on the face about the wisdom of these policies—but at the end of the day, one is forced to mount an argument about an overarching public good (or ill).
Simply asking “who, whom?”, as libertarian populism would have it, will only you take you so far.
Timothy Carney grapples with this question in a lengthy and thoughtful piece at Reason magazine. After having run through a series of real-life examples of wheeler-dealing, he delineates a set of best practices for industry lobbyists:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with profiting off big government. If the government creates a surplus of deer, someone has to thin that surplus. If government forces factories to clean up their emissions, someone has to make the smokestack scrubbers. If government requires drivers to use ethanol, someone has to make the stuff.
Nor is it inherently wrong to lobby for policies that increase your profits. “Petitioning the government for the redress of grievances” is protected by the First Amendment, and the regulatory environment often chips away at the profits companies would otherwise make. What is wrong is to lobby for policies that enrich your business by taking away other people’s property or liberty.
In a nutshell, the Carney Standard—unassailably reasonable, I’d say—is this: Do not lobby in favor of unjust laws.
Read the whole piece, however. It’s well worth your time.