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Yandle: Looking for love in all the wrong places, or serving the common good?

Yandle: Looking for love in all the wrong places, or serving the common good?

Here we go again. Another set of efforts by the Biden administration to protect the U.S. economy from competition and combat climate change. But those looking for hard evidence that it will consistently serve the common good are sure to be disappointed. That, as country singer Johnny Lee sang, is “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Special interests—those influential folks seeking a boost at the expense of others—are the ones finding comfort.

Yes, raw election politics seems to trump the public interest, whether it’s a cleaner climate or lower grocery bills, nearly every time. Fortunately, all hope is not lost.

Beginning with the pessimistic side, a few days ago, the administration announced a new round of tariffs on solar panels exported to the United States from Southeast Asian countries that have been putting the final touches on Chinese components. After delays meant to give American industry time to adjust, Biden officials have added proverbial rocks to U.S. harbors to limit the availability of solar energy to the American public, even after Biden preached that climate change is an existential threat.

The tariffs are opposed by American buyers of solar panels, who are struggling to complete contracts in a competitive environment flush with Inflation Reduction Act funding. They are praised by U.S. solar panel producers who gain when those big rocks keep foreign competition out of American harbors.

For whatever reason, Chinese solar panel producers have for years favored selling America their cheap clean-energy products. While the administration’s concerns about China’s ambitions surely play some role, punishing our solar Santa Claus tells us which private interest matters most in Washington.

If one example isn’t enough, around the same time, Mr. Biden’s Department of Commerce announced a new round of tariffs on can-making metals from China, Germany, and Canada. These tariffs, which follow an investigation requested by the United Steel Workers, are opposed by U.S. food companies, who argue that food products will become more expensive.

Commerce countered that the three affected countries are selling their products to American firms at unfairly low prices. Interestingly, on the day of this announcement, other news stories told of how American single moms are struggling to pay rising grocery prices. Apparently, the interests of a powerful union carry more weight than the unorganized concerns of single moms and countless grocery shoppers. No concern was expressed by Federal Reserve inflation fighters.

Is this what we should expect in America? James Madison foresaw the challenge. Writing about the new nation’s prospects in the Federalist Papers Number 10 in 1787, he explained how broadly organized democracies would fail because of the work of tightly organized special interest groups that subvert the common good to their own liking.

But, Madison argued, there is hope. He believed the new republic, with power spread among states and branches of government, would be different. Competing representatives from the various states would be caught in a constant interest-group struggle, making it difficult for any one faction to become dominant.

However, it’s unlikely that Madison could have imagined the rise of an administrative state where regulators, not elected officials, are empowered to set so much policy. That’s taken the influence-peddling game beyond the easy reach of voters and responsive legislators, helping to explain how special interests shove aside larger, more diverse groups of Americans to gain command over government-allocated resources. Elected leaders, though they preach otherwise, seldom have the incentives or ability to keep the common good one step ahead.

What, then, can We the People do to restore Madison’s vision? Here are two things to consider.

First, recalling Madison’s admonition, a lack of healthy political competition in the public arena is the true problem. A simple, nonpartisan reform—requiring more legislative review of regulatory actions—would re-invigorate political competition by forcing special-interest struggles back into public view. Out in the open, messy debates and conflicting interests can dilute the effectiveness of even top lobbyists.

Second, with so many examples of unorganized consumers losing out to organized interest groups, my old agency—the Federal Trade Commission—might beef up its efforts to protect consumers and good, clean American competition by intervening in the proceedings of other federal agencies.

As strange as it may sound, it’s possible that the common interest will be better served when there is more visible political action involved in public decision making, rather than less.

Bruce Yandle is dean emeritus of the Clemson University College of Business & Behavioral Science and a former executive director of the Federal Trade Commission. ©2023 Tribune Content Agency.