“Vested interests are universal”

Every once in a while, we experience moments of clarity. I experienced one while listening to this EconTalk podcast.

In it, Terry Moe discusses the special case where the power of vested interests in the New Orleans school district was wiped out after Hurricane Katrina and the effects that had on the re-emergence of the public school system there. It was a very interesting episode and well worth a listen.

The moment of clarity is here, with Moe speaking:

Let me just take a step back and say: Vested interests are universal. Every institution in every policy area generates vested interests. And these are interests of people who get the services of those institutions but also who get the jobs that those institutions generate or the business contracts that those institutions generate. And, this is true in agriculture; it’s true in defense; it’s true in the environment–you name it. And it’s not just true in this country: it’s true in every country; and it’s been true throughout time. This is a universal thing. All institutions generate vested interests, and those vested interests have a stake in protecting their institutions from change because those institutions are the source of their benefits. And in many cases, those benefits, like jobs and profits, have absolutely nothing to do with whether the institutions are performing well.

And so these vested interests, which have a stake in investing in political power, will use their political power in order to stop reforms even when the institutions are performing very badly. And that is the problem that all societies face, and that our society faces, in trying to have a healthy democracy in which our institutions actually work. When we have institutions that are failing, the vested interests will still protect them and make it virtually impossible for us to reform them.

This is true in state, federal and local government, U.S. Soccer, business, non-profits, school districts, universities, unions, tenure and so on.

All these things can be good.

But, a question rarely asked is what happens when they aren’t performing well?

What brings about change that might improve performance?

Do those changes threaten vested interests benefiting from the current system?

In my opinion, competition is a more preferable option to limiting the power of vested interests than natural disasters. It acts is the same manner on vested interests without all the collateral death and destruction.