Who’s Afraid of Private Industry?

Many liberals think that the primary purpose of government is to protect them from private industry. I have never understood that. History suggests that it is governments that should be viewed warily, not private enterprise. When has the electric company ever hauled people out of their beds, lined them up against a wall and shot them? When has an automobile manufacturer ever asserted the right to appropriate big chunks of anyone’s income, whether they like it or not? Companies just compete for my business. They supply me with things I enjoy and need, and, with rare exceptions, I like them.

The government, on the other hand, takes close to half of my income by force, drives up the cost of everything I buy with indirect taxes and needless regulations, complicates what should be easy transactions, and will surely do worse the moment we all stop paying attention. So I count on private companies to help protect me against government.

These thoughts are prompted by one of the Left’s latest “exposes.” It started with Bloomberg News, which one would expect to know better. Bloomberg’s target was ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is the sort of organization that on paper, doesn’t sound controversial. Its mission is to “advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government, and general public.”

What’s wrong with that? Well, being in favor of free enterprise puts you in the crosshairs of the Left. Liberals never say that they oppose free enterprise, but if you actually favor it, they treat you as an enemy. (Similarly, during the Cold War, liberals wouldn’t admit that they were pro-Communist, but if you were an anti-Communist, you were barred from polite society.) Bloomberg’s attack on ALEC was based on the fact that private companies are members of the organization:

Koch Industries Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) are among companies that would benefit from almost identical energy legislation introduced in state capitals from Oregon to New Mexico to New Hampshire — and that’s by design.

The energy companies helped write the legislation at a meeting organized by a group they finance, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based policy institute known as ALEC.

The corporations, both ALEC members, took a seat at the legislative drafting table beside elected officials and policy analysts by paying a fee between $3,000 and $10,000, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News.

Many companies are members of ALEC, so why did Bloomberg single out Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil? Because liberals hate them! No other reason.

The Bloomberg article is so poorly written that it is hard to get a clear sense of what ALEC is, let alone how it operates. A discerning reader, however, might gather some basic facts: ALEC is an organization that brings together state legislators and companies that have expertise and interests in particular areas. These individuals, representing both the private and public sectors, work together to draft statutes and regulations that can serve as models for state legislatures. That probably sounds like a good idea to most people.

But left-wing commentators have put an even more negative spin on the already-misleading Bloomberg article. Think Progress, to take one of many examples, headlined “Koch And Exxon Pay To Write State Legislation Repealing Climate Change Laws.”

According to tax records and other materials acquired by Bloomberg News, Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil, and numerous other corporations paid tens of thousands of dollars to write legislation for lawmakers that would repeal carbon pollution reduction programs in various states around the U.S.
These companies working to dismantle environmental programs are members of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which allows private-sector parties to “pay-to-play” – charging thousands of dollars to sit at the table with legislators and craft bills.

Would that it were so easy! Sensing that the Left’s attacks amounted to much ado about nothing, I called ALEC and chatted with the organization’s spokeswoman, Raegan Weber, who was quoted in the Bloomberg story. She explained what ALEC is and how it works.

First, ALEC generates model legislation and regulations. Nothing that ALEC produces becomes law, anywhere, unless it is adopted by a state’s legislature. ALEC’s models are merely suggestions, and are influential only to the extent that they are found meritorious by state legislators. Model legislation has a number of advantages, as I learned early in my law career. It allows states to benefit from the experience of those who have already experimented with legislation; it can create a reasonable degree of uniformity that is an aid to judicial interpretation; and, done well, it can represent “best practices” in a particular area.

Second, ALEC has two kinds of members: state legislators and representatives of the private sector, including companies, foundations, non-profits and other organizations. ALEC sets up task forces in particular subject-matter areas. Interested legislators and private sector members participate voluntarily. Legislators pay modest dues to belong to the organization; companies and other private sector organizations pay dues to support general operations and pay additional amounts for each task force in which they wish to participate.

The task forces have two components: a private sector group and a public sector (legislator) group. They meet and discuss proposals. The process benefits from the expertise and perspective of private industry, which helps the public sector representatives avoid proposals that would have unintended consequences and impose needless costs. At the end of the day, a proposal must garner majority support from both the public sector group and the private sector group in order to be forwarded to ALEC’s decision-making body, the 23-member legislative board, which consists entirely of legislators.

Bloomberg (not to mention left-wing web sites) seems to have missed this very fundamental point. Private companies can offer input, but they don’t determine the outcome: a task force proposal only becomes an ALEC-endorsed model policy if it is adopted by the public sector legislative board. So evidently, what the Left really doesn’t like is the mere fact of private citizens, who have expertise and who represent the interests of their consumers, being heard from when legislators are thinking about how to address public policy issues. On the Left, apparently, ignorance is bliss.

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