Some years ago, I read an article in Reason magazine that made mention of a trend in the formation of unelected bodies that advise executives and legislatures. It was a trend I’d known nothing about, but which has proved exceptionally important these past three decades. It usually goes by the name of stakeholder representation.
A “stakeholder” is a group that agitates for changes in public policy that focus on some relatively narrow interest. For example, the Sierra Club is considered a stakeholder in environmental concerns. The Urban League is a stakeholder focused on the desiderata of cities. The National Organization of Women is considered a stakeholder as regards “women’s issues.” There are as many others as there are significant concerns, however parochial, around which groups have formed for political action.
The members of an unelected advisory body are usually chosen by elected officials, most often someone with executive authority. Here’s where the “stakeholder” concept begins to have an effect. If the mayor of a city is populating a commission to advise him on some issue, he’s likely to feel that certain groups must be represented on that commission. For example, imagine a commission on quality-of-life issues in a reasonably large city. If there’s a branch of the Sierra Club operating in his city, it’s more likely to have a member on the commission than not. Another example would be economic development. If there’s a branch of NOW operating in that city, it’s almost certain to have a representative on the commission. The theory is that such groups act as concentrators for the principal interests of a large number of individuals.
However, the principal interest of any organization is...a little suspense music please, Maestro...the well-being of the organization. Therefore, a representative of group X will have as his foremost priority preserving, and if possible increasing, the importance of group X. He will lean away from postures that would undermine group X’s stature: the size of its membership and revenues and its effective influence on public policy. This sometimes yields seemingly paradoxical results. Imagine, for example, a Sierra Club commission member declining to lend his support to an open-space-preservation initiative. He might do so were he persuaded that the success of the initiative would reduce overall interest in the efforts of the Sierra Club.
Committee behavior often produces results of that sort. But there’s a larger and more important dynamic behind it.
Grouping has a positive-feedback effect. The emergence of groups on certain issues elicits the formation of groups on others. In part, it’s a response to perceived success – people will naturally emulate the successful – and in part it’s to gain the status of stakeholders. Stakeholder groups have disproportionate influence on public affairs, including the distribution of funds and the attention of the media.
Perceptive political strategists are aware of this. It’s why they work to identify and seduce voting blocs: groups of voters that vote in a consistent fashion. But the effect doesn’t stop there. Since an organized group has the potential to be seen as a stakeholder on some issue in the public discourse, there’s political value in the proliferation of groups, apart from the number of their members. Thus, political strategists have an incentive to encourage the formation of ever more special-interest groups. A political party – in other words, a power-seeking group that makes use of democratic and quasi-democratic mechanisms – will seek to have as many groups as possible within its embrace, in the hope of maximizing the stakeholder representation effect. Sometimes that can even counter an opposition party with a majority of voters.
There is, of course, a limiting counterforce: the number of distinct issues that can “fit into” popular consciousness and the public discourse at any given time. However, that number has recently been larger than in previous eras, in part because so many Americans have become “single-issue voters.” The paradox is only apparent.
And believe it or not, we’re not done yet.
It’s common to view an unelected body with no official powers as merely advisory. It has influence but not authority. Its recommendations aren’t binding. Executives and legislatures need not move in the direction the commission advocates. As usual, it’s important to look deeper.
When a politician or a group of politicians shares an incentive with an advisor, that advisor’s recommendations are likely to serve the shared incentive along with any other priorities the advisor holds. It’s every advisor’s desire to be influential, and to be viewed as influential, which sharpens this particular dynamic. And it’s every politician’s desire to be more powerful and influential in the operations of the government. Thus, typical advisory bodies tend to recommend expansions of government, and increases in its de facto power over the citizenry, rather than the reverse.
The dynamic permeates the whole process. Groups form in a quest for stakeholder status. They’re solicited for representatives to advise executives and legislators. The group will naturally prefer to submit the name of a member inclined toward intervention on its behalf. The member, once empaneled, will see his own fortunes as better served by consistent interventionism and expansion of State power, and the politicians that listen to such commissions will be more inclined to take their advice when it leans in the direction of government expansion. Everybody wins...except you and me.
I used the term demo-balkanization in the title of this piece, knowing it would ring strangely in the ears of many readers. Perhaps its meaning is now clear:
Politicians all seek more and wider powers.
Intervention-oriented groups and politicians are natural allies.
This is one of the chief fuels for the democratic Balkanization of the electorate and the concomitant acceleration of government. And in a political order such as ours, there appears to be nothing anyone can do about it.
Retief stood up. "I'm taking a few weeks off...if you have no objections, Mr. Ambassador. My pal Whonk wants to show me an island down south where the fishing is good."
"But there are some extremely important matters coming up," Magnan said. "We're planning to sponsor Senior Citizen Groups."
"Count me out. Groups give me an itch."
"Why, what an astonishing remark, Retief. After all, we diplomats are ourselves a group."
"Uh-huh," Retief said. "That's what I mean."
Magnan sat quietly, his mouth open, and watched as Retief stepped into the hall and closed the door gently behind him.
[Keith Laumer, “Aide Memoire”]
Have you joined any groups lately, Gentle Reader?