Most people naturally assume that politicians act in the public interest as they construct and conduct public policy. They hold to a romantic view of politics that holds, ultimately, that human behavior in the political realm is somehow different, indeed better, than human behavior in almost every other realm. Politics, is, after all, the way we address common problems, and those who hold office, or who work in the bureaucracy, are public servants. In order to understand public policy as it is, though, these beliefs will have to be questioned. We will have to get the romance out of politics.
Policy, of course, is a reaction. It is a reaction to an actual or perceived problem in society, which captures the interest of any number of actors. These can and often do include lawmakers themselves, but more often than not early attention is brought to bear by interest groups, think tanks, public intellectuals, and the media. Minimum wage policy, for example, is largely driven by public intellectuals, who write and speak about the difficulty of living on a minimum wage. Think tanks are involved too, often doing research and providing analysis on the effects of minimum wage law itself. Rather than looking at the issue from the perspective of the individual worker, these people tend to approach the problem academically, asking difficult questions about whether a proposed increase in the minimum wage might actually lead to unemployment, thus harming the very people those suggesting an increase are seeking to help. The media covers both sides of the issue to one degree or another, but the slant they choose to put on their reporting, without question, influences what happens in the steps that follow.
Drug policy, specifically marijuana policy in the United States is another example of how difficult problem identification can be, because reasonable people often disagree on the nature of the problem in the first place. What should marijuana policy be in the United States? It depends on whom is being asked. Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug according to federal law. Schedule I drugs are defined by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as “drugs, substances, or chemicals… defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”
A number of states, however, have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal or even recreational use. The groups involved with problem identification on this issue are numerous. Various state politicians, national office holders, doctors, police unions, individual police chiefs, marijuana growers, bureaucrats, scientists, and voters all seem to have something to say on this matter, or they by no means speak in a unified voice. Many want marijuana to be legal everywhere and always, and many other would prefer it were illegal across the country. In the middle are many who think it should be legal for medicinal purposes only, many who think it should be left up to the states, and countless others with any number of differing opinions.
Many of these people have a vested, personal interest in the outcome of the policy debate, which complicates matters significantly. On the most basic level, any number of actors’ livelihoods are attached to the continuation, adoption, or discontinuation of specific policies, and these actors will seek to use the power of government to get what they want, irrespective of whether what they want happens to be in the public interest. These groups often band together and hire lobbyists, people whose sole job it is to apply pressure to politicians to get what they want legislatively.
- What do you think is the right way to resolve questions such as whether to legalize marijuana? Whose voices should be heard? Why?
- If you wanted to change a law, how would you go about it? Would you contact your representative directly? Or join a group trying to do so? Which do you think is more effective?
- The video talks about the bribery conviction of Government Robert McDonnell of Virginia. In 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned that case. Does the fact that his activities were not illegal increase or decrease your sense of the potential for corruption within our political system?
- One of the problems with trying to limit lobbying is that the government is involved in so many detailed matters that it requires experts to help politicians shape the laws they are passing. How would you suggest reducing the role of “expert” lobbyists?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense Government eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for use by students and teachers. Click Here to download the Common Sense Government materials.
Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press. 16, Mar. 2018, Lobbyist sketch [Digital image]. Retrieved from <google.com>.