The Myth of Public Interest and the Flourishing of Political Predation

I was listening to “Marketplace” on NPR the other day and my god was I getting annoyed. The story was about some deal that the Department of Labor cut with Wal-Mart, which was perfectly legal, but broke internal labor rules. Anyway, the thing that really struck me was the narrative undercurrent. Wal-Mart was assumed to be an opportunistic, possibly predatory, profit-seeker. The Department of Labor was assumed to be the agent working on behalf of a widely accepted conception of the public interest, which Wal-Mart was assumed to threaten. In this case, Labor, by being lax on Wal-Mart (they were giving Wal-Mart a couple weeks of warning before inspecting the books or something), had disappointed us, the listeners of NPR’s marketplace, by failing to be as vigilant as they should.

Now, I think these two common assumptions of the media, that business is zero-sum and so profit-seeking behavior is predatory and that government is the noble agent of the public interests in fact makes the media deeply complicit in the corruption of both business and government by creating cover for the power-seeking, cronyism, and rent-extraction that is everywhere and always an essential aspect of government power. By cultivating and perpetuating a naive public perception that, other things equal, government is protecting us, the media in fact makes it much easier for the Halliburtons of the world to lock in giant no-bid contracts and for bureaucrats to revolve in and out of lobbying positions for special interests. That is, media that works on the assumption that government in fact serves the public interest makes it much easier for government to serve as an effective cover for transfers from taxpayers to the politically connected wealthy.

Journalism that understood the idea of the public interest would shift focus and report on the way that big government creates incentives that both corrupts business and government, makes it increasingly difficult for government to serve it’s genuinely necessary functions, and wastes productive private resources that would otherwise be involved in cooperative wealth creation, rather than in competitive, zero-sum political predation. As Russ Roberts put it yesterday:

Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that modern day left of center folks think that corporations run America via their influence on the government. If you believe that, why would you want government to be more powerful? If corporations control the political process, why wouldn’t you be on my side, reducing the power of government?

This point, however, seems never to penetrate, and journalists persist in the fantasy that if only the right people had state power, then they could put the world aright. All the while, the people who have a lot to gain personally from political power continue to seek it and get it under the cover of the myth of the noble public servant.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center