By Brian Brinker:
Liberal, conservative, progressive. Left, right. Libertarian, anarchist, communist. Far too often we allow ourselves to be identified by simplistic tags and identities designed to divide us based upon our personal beliefs. At the end of the day, however, I have faith that we are all Americans, and just as importantly, that we are all human, and that when we need to, we can come together and accomplish great things.
Most of us Americans want to build a better society and increase overall prosperity, even if we disagree on the best ways to do so. One thing I think most Americans can agree upon is the need to “drain the swamp,” not just in Washington D.C., but at every level of government. Over the past several decades, the influence of special interests has grown immensely, and it’s now fair to question whether our government is serving these interests rather than the American people.
President Trump certainly promised to drain the swamp on the campaign trail, and that was an issue many voters rallied around. Whether or not he’ll be able to deliver now that he’s in the nation’s highest office remains to be seen, but it’s clear that many Americans do want to reduce the influence money has in politics.
In fact, a YouGov poll found that 57% of Americans think that outside campaign spending should be limited, while only 21% felt that it should remain unlimited. Even among Republicans, who were the most likely to support unlimited campaign spending, the idea of limiting outside spending enjoyed support among only 33%, while 50% were opposed.
The Founding Fathers Separated Church & State For A Reason
Preventing undue influence over the government is already well-established through precedence in this country, where we have a long-standing tradition of separating the church and the state. While churches and other religious organizations can still participate in politics and voice their opinions, their influence is minimized.
The Founding Fathers were quite direct in their intent to establish a separation of Church and State, and they had good reason for doing so. For hundreds of years, religion had been used as an excuse to persecute enemies, support the exploitation of serfs, and to make kings and nobles all but unquestionable as leaders appointed by God. The Founding Fathers recognized that religion had an important role in society, but also that any undue influence it might wield had to be restrained. The government had to remain neutral and pragmatic, and had to work in the interest of the people, not religions.
Up until the Founding Fathers created a separation of Church and State, declaring that the government would establish no religion, the Church itself was immensely and directly influential in governments around the world. Indeed, many of the earliest European settlers in North America were religiously persecuted minorities. They were motivated not by a sense of adventure, but instead a yearning for freedom from religious oppression.
As the Islamic State and other Islamic-inspired governments in the Middle East remind us, relying on ancient religious texts to form modern governments can produce disastrous results. By separating the church and the state, however, America was able to more properly balance religious beliefs with the pragmatic realities of running a government that would be good for all of the people, not just a certain subset of individuals adhering to a particular religion.
Now, it’s time to balance the special interests of big companies and wealthy families with the good of the people. Yes, corporations and wealthy families need to have a voice, but they shouldn’t be allowed to yield so much influence that it destroys the government’s objectivity and ability to serve in the interest of the people as a whole.
Corporations and Special Interests Must Now Be Separated From the State
During and following the Enlightenment Era, it was easy to see how much undue influence the Church had in government affairs and society at large. What the Founding Fathers never could have imagined was the rise of corporations and immensely wealthy families with enough funds to easily sway elections, as we have seen in recent times.
Remember: at the time, modern democracy was relatively new, and corporations were still a largely alien concept. The idea of nationally powerful companies, both incorporated and privately owned, was all but unheard of. The same could be said of lobbyists and other special interest groups.
Under old feudal systems, few (if any) families could hope to amass more wealth than royalty. Early corporations, such as the East India Trading company, were under direct control of national governments. Guilds were also under the influence of royalty. Most other businesses were far smaller, and were primarily sole proprietorships or partnerships. This is important to note because incorporated companies are given their own legal existence distinct from their owners.
This type of system isn’t good; it’s oppressive. But it also meant that these people and organizations didn’t have nearly as much influence as they do today, and thus weren’t a problem that needed to be addressed. While the Founding Fathers could recognize that the Church presented a threat, they couldn’t anticipate the rise of other types of special interests, especially large corporations and immensely powerful industrial families.
To be clear, corporations are great for society, and encouraging wealthy families to be wealthy can also be a positive driving force. Limiting special interests isn’t about cracking down on the market, or oppressing the wealthy, but instead ensuring that the government can carry out its duties objectively. The amount of power that can be concentrated into a handful of companies and families is immense, however, and they are often able to directly influence the government to pursue decisions and actions that favor themselves at the expense of the greater population.
Why Private Special Interests Need to be Restrained
While corporations and wealthy families can be positive forces, their interests will not always align with the greater interests of “the people”. In the case of corporations and businesses, their primary goal is to pursue profits. In pursuit of such profits, these organizations have delivered a fantastic plethora of products and services, and have driven the development of numerous technologies, advancing society at a pace that humanity has never before seen.
And yet, their goal isn’t to promote the overall interests of society. It’s purely to produce profits. If that means polluting a community with industrial runoff all while inflating the bottom line, the realities of history have taught us that many companies will do so. The 2008 financial crisis happened because massive banks gambled on risky derivatives and other financial instruments, foreclosed on many Americans’ homes, ripped off clients, and engaged in other illicit activities with the goal of producing profit. They also knew full-well that the American government would bail them out if their collapse threatened the global economy.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies and others continue to charge Americans extraordinary sums for drugs that are available elsewhere at a fraction of the price. And while plenty of companies are working hard to support America’s military, some have been accused of promoting waste and corruption. Further, even as the Walton family sees its wealth continue to grow, taxpayers spend more than $6 billion dollars supporting Walmart workers with various welfare programs.
On and on the list goes. Again, the point here isn’t that corporations are bad, or that wealthy families need to be punished. It is important to recognize, however, that their interests won’t often won’t align with society’s interests. As such, the government needs to have the freedom to construct policies, and when necessary, regulations, to ensure that the interests of society as a whole (which includes the wealthy and corporations) are paramount.
Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.