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Monday, April 14, 2014

Whose interests are served in the law?

This issue is raised in the book.

In it, I argue that the law tends to represent the powerful but also suggest that normal, ordinary people can also have their will impact the law, consistent with the pluralist view of the law. Yet, there is no doubt that the powerful tend to win when it comes to making the law.

This is not, and should not be, a controversial statement. After all, lawmakers tend to be very wealthy. So, they make the law. Also, it is the powerful who tend to fund the law as well, in the form of campaign contributions.

Thus, studies like this one should not surprise you. Here is a summary from Think Progress:

When organized interest groups or economic elites want a particular policy passed, there’s a strongly likelihood their wishes will come true. But when average citizens support something, they have next to no influence.

That’s according to a forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. The two looked at a data set of 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 and matched them up against surveys of public opinion broken down by income as well as support from interest groups.

They estimate that the impact of what an average citizen prefers put up against what the elites and interest groups want is next to nothing, or “a non-significant, near-zero level.” They note that their findings show “ordinary citizens…have little or no independent influence on policy at all.” The affluent, on the other hand, have “a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy,” they find, “more so than any other set of actors” that they studied. Organized interest groups similarly fare well, with “a large, positive, highly significant impact on public policy.”

When they hold constant the preferences of interest groups and the rich, “it makes very little difference what the general public thinks,” they note. The probability that policy change occurs is basically the same whether a small group or a large majority of average citizens are in favor. On the other hand, all else being the same, opposition from the wealthy means that a particular policy is only adopted about 18 percent of the time, but when they support it it gets adopted 45 percent of the time. Similar patterns are true for interest groups. The impact could also be even higher than their findings, as there may be policy differences among those they count as wealthy, which means that the imprecision in their measure “is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making,” they write.

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