Barking at Ethics

Georgia House Bill 142 (introduced on January 29, 2013) attempts to reform ethic laws in this state. Sadly, legislators have, in their zeal to cast a wider ethical net, broadened the definition of lobbyist so wide that it now encompasses basically everyone except elected officials themselves (just wait, that will come next!). Yes, this includes even you and me. The particularly onerous portions of this bill, the reporting requirements, do not apply to individual citizens expressing “personal views” UNLESS they are speaking to someone elected statewide who was not elected within their district. In other words, as the law is written (as of today February 10, 2013) if you wish to speak to the Governor, Secretary of State, Public Service Commissioner, etc. and discuss anything other than the weather or sports you technically would need to register with the state of Georgia as a lobbyist and pay a $300 annual fee for the privilege thereof.

This provision clearly violates the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution (in conjunction with the supremacy clause) or the 14th Amendment (take your pick) insofar as the 1st Amendment guarantees “the right of the people… to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That key phrase “right of the people to petition” – defines precisely what “lobbying” is. Therefore any laws that in any way hinder the ability of anyone to petition (lobby) are violations of this core Constitutional right. It is immaterial toward the exercise of this right whether I (or a group of people) personally petition the government or if I hire someone to act on my (or our) behalf.

The idea that society requires the intervening hand of a strong, beneficent governing body in order to keep us all in line relies upon the argument that, in general, people are bad and need to be governed. This faith in a paternalistic government rests squarely on the assumption that elected officials must necessarily be “better” than the rest of us, for if they are not, what is the point in being ruled by those no better than we? And if they are indeed not any better than we (as evidenced by the apparent need for various ethics and transparency laws), this then begs the question: if the problem with society is imperfect humans, why put imperfect humans in charge? We make the problem worse by conferring special power privileges to those in charge that invite a level of abuse that would otherwise be impossible absent such special privilege.

The fact that we find it necessary to pass ethics laws demonstrates the fundamental flaw of monopoly government. Abuse of power. Ethics laws are mere band-aids that do not address the underlying incentive problem. It is in man’s nature to abuse power just as surely as it is in a dog’s nature to bark. You can muzzle the dog, but he still barks, albeit softly. Ethics laws simply shift unethical behavior underground. I suppose if sweeping dirt under the rug constitutes “cleaning” then ethics laws “solve” ethical issues equally well.

I, like so many others, am justifiably upset with the power and sway some lobbyists seem to hold over many in government. But I’m not upset with the lobbyists; rather I’m upset with a system that encourages rent seeking by a small but vocal minority (rent seeking being the activity of manipulating the power of government so as to benefit oneself at the expense of others). The only way to solve “ethics” problems in government is to remove the incentives to “buy” power. Eliminate the monopoly power government has over the activities being lobbied. I don’t lobby McDonalds to build a restaurant near me, rather, I eat at Burger King. If McDonald’s wants my dollar, they have to earn it. So too should it be with government.