By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
Organized groups are as much a part of how American politics operates as elections and flag-waving. However, there is a problem with these groups. Organized interests are strongly imbalanced toward resource-rich and privileged groups; those who face disadvantages and have fewer resources tend to have much less ability to affect policy.
Violence of Factions and Its Solution
The Founding Fathers were aware of the importance of groups in politics and sought to build institutions that would harness their interests to advance the public good. In the Federalist Papers Number 10, James Madison famously warned about the “violence of factions”, which is the bad news about group organizations and referred to organized groups of political actors willing to go to extremes to gain or keep power.
But the framers strongly valued freedoms and liberties and did not want to create laws that would curtail liberties in the name of keeping factions under control. The good news is that they came to what is known as pluralism. Pluralism refers to an idealistic state in which all demanding voices are met with competing demanding voices, and the variety and diversity of views provide a check on anyone’s voice from becoming overly dominant.
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Madison’s View of a Pluralistic World and Its Flaws
A pluralistic world values diversity and countervailing ideas. In a pluralistic society, ideas are constantly challenged, and discourse helps to advance better ideas by weeding out the bad ones. In Madison’s view, the way to prevent one faction in society from becoming too powerful is to ensure there is ample room for a competing faction to arise and challenge that domineering voice.
That is why protections for free speech and free assembly are so important in a society. Where freedoms are truly protected, they provide a check on power because a tyrant can be publicly challenged by opposing voices.
The bad news about Madison’s approach, however, is that pluralism has a built-in assumption of equality. The pluralistic ideal can occur only if everyone in society has equal opportunity and access to participate in policymaking. An opposing voice can only challenge a tyrant if the voice has the means and wherewithal to do so.
Learn more about James Madison’s concept of the separation of powers.
The Organized Interest Groups in America
Social Security, the government program that provides income support to people over age 65, was enacted in 1935, and Medicare, the government program that provides healthcare to people age 65 and over, was enacted in 1965. But another important thing happened during that time. The American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, was established in 1958, and it played a significant role in advocating for the establishment of Medicare.
So, a big part of the good news story about interest groups is that groups provide representation. Thanks to James Madison, anyone can form a group about anything, and thousands of groups exist. Most groups are nowhere near as large as the behemoth AARP, but the power to organize and petition the government for your needs and interests is a right and a power granted to every American.
Why Do People Form Interest Groups?
One way to break down why people form groups is to think about whether a group of people is interested in obtaining a private good or a public good. A private good is something that benefits only the people who were asking for it. You could think of this in terms of a big company, like Verizon, seeking a favorable policy from the government, maybe the Federal Communications Commission, for example. On the other hand, some groups advocate for public goods.
A public good is one that benefits everyone. Once a public good exists, no one can be excluded from using it. Think of a group advocating for a park, clean air, clean water, or community security. So, when a consumer advocacy group seeks certain regulations on banks to protect consumer interests, it helps everyone since everyone in America is a consumer.
Learn more about how the US social safety net works.
The Problem with Public Goods
The problem is public goods result in a particular type of dilemma. When people cannot be excluded from having access to a public good, it creates the incentives for free-riding. Think about it this way. Suppose you live in a housing community where there is trash pick-up once a week.
The whole time you’ve lived in this community, the trash bins get put out at the curb for pick-up and get brought back into the storage facility every week. You’ve never actually seen anybody do it, and you’ve never done it yourself, but you just assume that it’s something that gets done for you. Well, it turns out that one of your generous neighbors, let’s call her Nancy, has taken it upon herself to take care of the trash bins every week for as long as she’s lived in the community.
This comes to your attention when Nancy is no longer able to take care of the trash bins, and they stop going out and coming back in. Before too long, the community is facing a crisis because no one is taking care of the trash bins. At that point, it becomes clear that Nancy had been providing a public good to the community, and you and the rest of the community were free-riding off of her goodwill.
Common Questions about Pluralism and the Good and Bad News about Interest Groups
In the Federalist Papers Number 10, James Madison famously warned about the “violence of factions”. The solution for factional violence is pluralism, which prevents groups from gaining too much power.
According to James Madison, in order to prevent a faction from gaining power, other groups must be formed to confront it. Because of this view, everyone today in America has the right to form an interest group.
The problem is public goods result in a particular type of dilemma. When people cannot be excluded from having access to a public good, it creates the incentives for free-riding.