Whipsawed by a burgeoning budget crisis, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is learning a harsh lesson. As the Wall Street Journal bluntly explains, “Lower tax rates are hard to sustain without either faster economic growth or restraints on government.” But there’s another steep challenge involved—one laid bare by Brownback’s mishandling of the politics that surrounds the policy problem.
Previewing his budget program with a group of allies outside the state legislature, Brownback budget director Shawn Sullivan emailed the plan to Brownback’s former chief of staff and former campaign manager. Unfortunately, they’re currently both lobbyists.
Brownback’s misfortune runs deeper than the typical glib rhetoric surrounding lobbying (it’s bad, mmkay?). Eileen Hawley, his spokeswoman, told The Wichita Eagle that the Governor’s office “sought the counsel of a lot of people” in the budgeting process. Never mind, in other words, that two lobbyists got input on Brownback’s budget before legislators got to peek; after all, those lobbyists were just one part of a healthy mix of voices.
Sound familiar? Brownback’s effort at damage control falls back sagely on one of the dominant tropes of the age: diversity and inclusion. Rather than the exclusive property of the arbiters of political correctness, diversity and inclusion are now best practices for big business and big government alike. Many well-meaning people have hoped that those practices would cut down on insular cabalism inside America’s most powerful institutions. They haven’t realized they’re a boon to lobbyists.
The difficulty comes into focus when we understand how big institutions neutralize opposition. Corporations, for instance, used to revolve around serving shareholders’ interests. Now, to ward off accusations that they manipulate our lives out of greed, big businesses have convinced us that they’re responsible to a broad segment of interests, so-called “stakeholders.” It’s only reasonable to include their voices, right?
The same pattern has held true in government. Once the goal of governance was quaintly seen as simple justice. But as differing visions of justice came to polarize America, government was re-branded as “the public sector,” and “public-private partnerships” became the new means to a new end—not justice but efficacy. Instead of viewing powerful private interests with suspicion, as the pursuit of justice often counsels, policymakers learned to view them as useful experts with relevant input.
For big institutions, including diverse interests and voices is a good way to preempt criticism without taking on structural reforms. That’s because it’s also a good way to ensure that the privileged interests they really want to favor are cut into their decision-making process.
So, for corporations, policymakers can be readily presented as just another group of stakeholders. For policymakers, corporate lobbyists can be explained away as offering just one perspective among many.
And for the rest of us, the fix is in, as both these clever strategies work hand in hand. In the name of smarts and efficiency, we accepted that “government has a role,” however modest, in just about everything. Now, that logic would have us believe that lobbyists, too, should have a finger in every pie.
This is a slow-motion nightmare for principled people on the right and the left. Conservatives fear that the inertia of bigger government will pull it ever deeper into the details of everyday life. Liberals worry that, as money becomes the measure of all things, the influence of the wealthiest will expand without limit. Together, Americans need to recognize that the dovetailing of these trends is deliberate, and that, intentionally or not, it breeds systematic corruption.
We haven’t been served well enough by either party’s would-be remedies. The right insists that shrinking government shrinks the lobbyists’ pie. The left wants to curb the influence of corporate cash through taxes and campaign finance reform. Even more inventive reforms proposed at the political margins are half-measures. One group of liberals hopes to undo corruption by legally reconceptualizing them “as team-like enterprises making use of a multitude of inputs from various kinds of investors,” in the words of Boston College scholar Kent Greenfield, writing in 2012 in Democracy.
“The success of corporations depends on the contributions of many different stakeholders,” he argues, “and the governance of corporations should recognize those contributions.” Greenfield’s ilk hopes the power of government can fight fire with fire, tipping the scales against privileged insiders by mandating which kind of inclusive diversity corporations use. Whether or not this effort would survive the inevitable constitutional challenge, it fails to strike at the heart of the problem—pluralism’s ideological serviceability as a fig leaf for patronage.
As Gov. Brownback’s critics sense, the corruption we face is greater than the sum of its parts. Budget by budget, regulation by regulation, the rot advances without any great scandal. Enterprising cronies advantage themselves quietly, over the course of careers. Operators twirl nimbly through the Beltway’s many revolving doors, sure there’s an inclusive seat for their voice and their interests whoever’s arrayed at the conference room table. However we try to measure corruption, we will struggle to reverse it until we admit that the quality of our elites matters more than the quantity of their favors. Politically speaking, it turns out that diversity, inclusion, and efficiency are false virtues—all-too-believable cover stories for unrepresentative and unaccountable influence.