Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Please exit via the lobby

Like most sensible people who haven’t thought about it much, I would like cannabis to be legalized for both medicinal and recreational purposes. One of the arguments against legalization is that if cannabis were legal then lobbying on behalf of the cannabis industry would also be legal. If the cannabis lobby was as powerful as the tobacco lobby is, then presumably governments would do all kinds of pro-cannabis things which would put children at risk and turn a lot of us into whatever habitual cannabis users turn into. I don’t know whether this should change anyone's mind about legalization, but that’s how the argument goes.

One of the reasons this argument sounds peculiar is that governments ought to be able to ignore a lobby if it’s telling them to do things to which they’re ideologically opposed. It’s as if the governments are saying “we think X is fine and Y isn’t, but we can’t legalize X because then there would be more attempts to persuade us to allow Y, and these attempts might succeed”. Now although this sounds peculiar, I don’t think the reasoning is especially faulty. The straightforward reason is that the people getting lobbied will not always be the same people who made the decision to legalize the lobbying. Even if the government can guarantee its own obstinacy, it can’t guarantee that of its successors. The less straightforward reason is that there’s no reason to think that the government can guarantee even its own obstinacy. Lobbying works. Governments think one thing, lobbying happens, and governments change their minds. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be such big business. What I want to know is this: how does it work?

I can think of three ways it might work. One is simply that the lobbyists think up all the arguments in favour of whatever they’re lobbying for, and use the ordinary democratic channels to present these arguments to the government. Sometimes governments are persuaded by these arguments. I can’t imagine this is very effective. Governments know that lobbyists will present one-sided arguments, and would be fools to be persuaded by them. Of course, sometimes we elect fools. But it’s hard to believe lobbying would be very effective if that’s all they were doing.

Another thing lobbyists could do is devise strategies whereby their paymasters can use what clout they have to change the facts, and then present these new facts to the government. Maybe a government would be nicer to an industry which would otherwise go out on strike, so the lobbyist can come up with a plan to strike and then present this to the government. If not striking, then nasty ad campaigns or whatever else the government doesn’t like. It’s hard to believe this would work very well either, though. What exactly is it that the tobacco industry threatens to do? (Or oil, or motoring, or arms, or any of the other lobbies.)

So I suppose what lobbyists must spend most of their time doing is corrupting politicians. Perhaps they bribe them with political contributions, swanky dinners and holidays, jobs for the boys or good old-fashioned brown envelopes. Perhaps they find things to blackmail them with. But corrupting politicians is illegal, and my understanding is that what lobbyists do isn’t. If what they do is illegal then the police should be informed. And if it isn’t, then how exactly does it work? Lobbyists must know. Politicians must know. But I don’t know, and I’d like to be told.

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