Orphan Ideas

When it comes to political influence, money is not everything: ideas play a big role, too. But new ideas, like new drugs, have to pay their way, which means that how widely an idea is diffused depends to a large extent on how much money is at stake.

CHICAGO – Since the United States Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, which prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, concern about business interests’ influence over US elections has been growing. But political contributions are only one reason why business interests have so much power. When it comes to lobbying, money is not everything: ideas play a big role, too. Unfortunately, rather than leveling the playing field, the battle of ideas may skew US politics even further in favor of big business.

The importance of ideas can be seen from the simplest things. Congressional bills aimed at benefiting powerful constituencies are generally given appealing (and misleading) names. For example, a tax holiday to repatriate foreign earnings was called the “American Job Creation Act.” It is easier to sell a bill that (allegedly) benefits everyone in society, not just a small group of its most privileged members.

More importantly, the lobbying of the quasi-governmental mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would not have been so successful without the idea of the “ownership society.” How could anyone oppose turning every American into an owner? It is precisely the appeal of such ideas that can make them so dangerous politically.

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