Dr. Eileen Lynch
18. Interest Groups in
What is co-optation? How does it occur? What are some of the problems that one might face in attempting to write legislation to minimize co-optation?
Since people require more and more things that are actually out of their control and have no idea how to protect themselves, often it is necessary to create regulating agencies to protect them from the stuff they can’t protect themselves from.
Co-optation is a term that denotes the transition a regulatory agency for the protection of the general public undergoes from being a guardian of the public interest to becoming a defender of private interests when, over time, they lose their independence and are “infiltrated” by the very interests they were supposed to regulate against.
This is how it happens. People often need an agency that will protect them and guarantee their safeguard since they cannot look after themselves anymore because of the changes in modern society. So first, there’s the process of the revolving door, which means that members of the regulating agency have come from the same industry which they are supposed to regulate, so because they understand how it is with them, they end up sharing the perspective.
Then, after being in the job for a while, it is very hard for anyone to not make nice with the people they are supposed to be regulating since they deal with them on a regular basis and get to know them pretty well. This makes it difficult for anyone to prefer any other opinion than that of their pals.
Also, public interest is quick to move on to newer developments and news and to lose interest in the initial reason for any regulation passed on their behalf. Because the regulators have to continue dealing with representatives of the groups they are trying to regulate and because of lack of interest on public advocates, it becomes very difficult for them to keep in mind the very esoteric concept of common good over the daily presence of interest groups representatives.
In short, the co-optation of regulatory agencies happens because we have to choose flesh and bone persons to man these bureaus, and many of the regulated appear more human to them than the disembodied general public.
The example given to us in the text book about the case of Farmers Insurance serves to show the many difficulties one would find if he ever tried to legislate against co-optation and render it into non-existence. First, one would have to find a case so gross and blatant that public outcry would be enough to mobilize the state’s law-making apparatus. Then, one would have to beat off with a stick all the representatives and lobbyists of the industry in question that would be trying to influence the outcome. Afterwards, one would have to be a saint to not be tempted by the obscene amounts of money that could lay in wait for a complacent and cooperative law-maker in line with the industry’s raison d’etre. And, in the end, one would have to be able to get rid of the dozens of other government officials already in line with the industry’s interests. If one could navigate through these murky waters, one would be better off applying for resident saint and patron of lost causes and get canonized right away before becoming a martyr for the common good.