Can a democratic system be structured in a way that doesn't rely on ethics or brute-force, police-state-esque measures to disable lobbying?

Is there a way to inherently make lobbying unattractive/unfeasible without external control?

Any level of a democracy may be altered to result in such a system.

For instance, if somehow the existing voting system could limit lobbying, which one would be best?

If possible, I would like to see some mathematical models as simulation evidence. Even better, of course, would be empirical evidence in an actual implementation case, but I rather doubt that exists.

I especially would like to see the response of a given system to noise. So, given that somebody already is lobbying, how would you avoid others joining in or even overcome the lobbying goal to cause a result more true to the (informed) majority's opinion?

(Of course, there may be instances where a lobbying faction happens to have goals that actually do help the general public and is favorable to the majority. In that case, the results shouldn't change no matter whether a faction lobbies or not.)


7 Answers 7


The problem you are running into is the conflation of "lobbying" and "special interests."

Lobbying, at its most basic form, is attempting to influence a representative to vote a certain way. An election is really nothing more than a special case of lobbying - only instead of influencing a representative, you are attempting to influence all voters.

A "special interest group" is a group of people that organize around a narrow issue, typically for the purposes of magnifying their ability to influence legislation.

Ultimately, all lobbying does is "do the work" of democracy - it makes people's voices heard.

When we fret over the "outsized influence of special interests," we are decrying the fact that the "average guy's" voice is being drawn out by money.

When we see bribery and corruption, that is clearly "against the rules," but done according to the rules, lobbying is just effective influence. From a pragmatic point of view then, the best kind of rules are those do not hinder the voice, but expose when the game is unfair. There's an old saying "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," meaning that when things are exposed to the light of day, then tend to clean things up. (Have to say, the New Testament pioneered this, saying, "Men love darkness rather than light", but I digress.) If, for example, an special interest group is receiving 96% of its funding from, say, Westboro Baptist Church, the principle of free speech (and Buckley v. Valeo) would say that prohibiting such donations is bad. At the same, the political blowback from exposing said fact tends to blunt said money's impact. Transparency, then, rather than legislation, is probably your best bet.

Now, writing a letter to your Congressman is also lobbying. Indeed as this podcast shows, when a Congressman is choosing between money from a big powerful interest group or the letters from his constituents, he'll choose the letters every time. Indeed, special interest groups are most effective when they get real voters to do just that - write their Congressmen.

And that's the problem - what you call a special interest is what I call "my interest," and vice versa. A lobbyist, a special interest group - all they are doing is being better at getting their voice heard than the guy who isn't focused.

I say this to answer your question thus, that lobbying is democracy, at its best. Any attempt to call it otherwise would be restrict the whole raison d'etre of democracy - to make your voice heard.

  • 4
    damn, this is well said and well written. +2 (I lobbied a friend to do the second vote)
    – J.Todd
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 3:47
  • 1
    Lobbying is legal bribery, on steroids. Groups like ALEC actually write the laws they want passed, wine and dine (and probably pay outright) to get those bills passed as law. Lobbying is not "the voice of the people" but rather the influence of corporations to control the world and have its way.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 11:59
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    @WoundedEgo - that's the current campaign finance system. There's nothing about lobbying, itself, that makes that necessary or required. Nor is there anything about lobbying that exempts it from restrictions or the current abuses, if there is the political will for that. But, yes, our current campaign finance and lobbying system is one of legalized bribery. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 16:30
  • I agree that transparency and subsequent criticism of the source of funds is the most democratic way of combating this issue, unfortunately creating transparency is easier said than done
    – Gramatik
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 18:04

The problem with the lobbying is that people choose their representatives to represent the interests of the voters. Each voter has the same importance, when choosing the representative.

But once the representative is chosen, he/she may be influences by some group, to make him/her treat the interests of that group with higher priority than the interests of other groups.

The output is, that, in theory, every citizen has the same rights and the same influence on government, because everyone has the same vote. But because we rule through the representatives, more influence are those people, who are nearer those representatives.

Possible solutions:

1) more direct democracy, more referendums. But this is very costly, so unless there will be real e-democracy, it's hardly to imagine organizing referendum for every important decision made in parliament.

2) more transparency. If the people learn, for example, that representative X is often meeting with the director of company producing solar panels, they will be less likely to accept 'renewable-resources-policy'. Also hard, because representatives should also have some privacy, and not cameras installed in bathroom...

What will be not solved:

Lobbying is targeted to manipulate politicians. But mass media are targeted to manipulate the whole society. If we limit lobbying, we'll have the increase of intensity of media manipulation.

  • +1, especially for last paragraph. Instead of buying off politicians, lobbyists will buy off media influence.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 23:48
  • Another possible (partial) solution: Constitutionally restrict the power of legislators to the point they are simply not able to grant discretional favors to certain lobbyists. Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 17:19
  • @kbelder Six corporations already own all the media and that is why the media is so right wing and doesn't require "lobbying" (bribing).
    – Ruminator
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 12:00
  • Surprise, it's 5 years later. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 5:59

Yes, there is one way to do it.

And, barring police state, only one reliable effective way, considering the fact that humans respond to incentives and cost/benefit ratios present a very powerful incentive.

The way to do it is very simple:

Lobbying is asking the government to use its power in a way beneficial to a specific individual/organization.

The best solution to prevent this is to make sure that the government has no power - including budgetary - to use in any way that would benefit someone. This way, there's nothing to lobby FOR.

As an example, if a government can tax people, and out of the money raised with those taxes decide to build an infrastructure item X, it now has the power to decide which company gets chosen to build X - and get paid for it. If the project nets the company $100Mil, spending $100K on lobbying to make sure you get the project is a very good investment!

If the government was prevented from being able to commission building an infrastructure item X (such as, for example, by Constitutional amendment which strips away any powers not explicitly allowed), then there would be nothing for the builders of X infrastructure to lobby the government for (as opposed to those builders trying and selling the idea/project to the people who want to buy that piece of infrastructure).

In essence, the less power (and the less budget) the government has, the less corruption and lobbying there will be.

As a converse, it doesn't matter WHAT you do, as soon as you grant more power/more budgets to the government, it will ALWAYS be more cost effective for someone to spend X amount of money on lobbying to obtain a lot more than X in government preferential treatment.

As a second example:

  • If the law says "Every company's income gets taxed at 15%. No ifs, ands, or buts, no exceptions, no special rules."

    You now have zero reason for a company/industry to lobby to change the rules some special way to benefit that specific company at the expense of competitors, or their whole industry at the "expense" of tax revenue.

  • If on the other hand, your government has the power to tweak the laws so that some companies are able to save billions of dollars on taxes (*cough*GE*cough*), that company has an interest - hell, fiduciary duty to its shareholders - to spend up to that same couple of billion lobbying so that tax laws are structured to preserve and enhance that ability to save billions in taxes. Which is EXACTLY what GE did (hundreds of millions of dollars spent on lobbying).

  • 2
    That sounds like a really bleak picture. So in your view, the only way to get rid of any form of corruption is to not allow a government to actually govern? (The -1 was not from me, btw - as probably evident by my rep-count.)
    – kram1032
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 22:14
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    @kram1032 - There are two ways to stop people from behaving a certain way - (1) incentivize them to NOT behave this way by increasing the costs/downsides of behavior as far as punishment. This is impossible in case of lobbying/corruption since your Q rejected "brute-force, police-state-esque measures".
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 16:09
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    @kram1032 ... and (2) Remove the incentive to engage in behavior. That incentive is now there because the cost of lobbying is small in monetary terms relative to benefits, as you only need to influence a small amount of decision makers each of which is relatively "cheap" to influence. Therefore lobbying WILL happen, legally or illegally, just varying in its exact forms to avoid prosecution.
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 16:10
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    @kram1032 - So, without draconian police measures (or even with them - witness USSR/PRC where corruption was rampant, especially at the top), the only variable you CAN affect in this calculation is the projected benefits from lobbying. And the only way to affect that is to make sure a single human (or small # of them) in government has no power to award enormous benefits via governmental decree, either by changing regulations or awarding contracts or changing laws.
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 16:11
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    @kram1032 - no, the whole point Affable Geek made was that even full transparency isn't of much help. Look at this as a random example. All above water and known. ZERO repercussions, especially from her own voters.
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 20:08

Some lobbying comes in the form of giving campaign contributions to politicians. The best way to counteract this is to do public financing of elections.

Given the size of the US budget it wouldn't be a problem to spend 2 billion for publically financed elections. If politicians wouldn't be forced anymore to raise money for their campaigns from lobbyists the lobbyists would have less power.

A second issue is that if a politician makes a complex law he has to talk to experts on the subject that explain the politician the real world effects of the law.

Unfortunately a lot of the experts that a politician can ask to explain him how something works are payed lobbyists. It would be better if there would be other sources with less financial interests which opinions to seek.

That means not pushing university professors to have to have funding from corporations for their projects to make them able to be independent experts. It also means having career security of people inside the political system so that a politician with expertise who doesn't get reelected doesn't have to take a job as a lobbyist but can take a job as an adviser to other politicians of his own party. That means you need strong political parties with resources to pay experts.


You can't do away with lobbying. If I want to complain to my representative(s) then I should have every right to do so. That is a form of lobbying.

However, there are things that can be done to minimize the impact of the "large-cash" donating lobbyists. The simplest and most straight-forward way would be to make it illegal for any member of congress to participate in any fund-raising activities in any way shape or form until 60 days before their election. And I mean ANY form of fund raising, even if the cause has nothing to do with politics. That eliminates any possibilities of loopholes. With the much shorter fund raising cycle, less cash is needed and thereby, appeasing donors becomes less important.

We will never see this happen because accepting bribes from lobbyists is how most congress people fund their lavish retirement life styles.


To elaborate beyond Affable Geek's fantastic answer, on the point of transparency: I think it's rather simple.

We should start treating our politicians the same way we do our police officers. If our public servants are doing their jobs properly, then live body cameras only shows what a nice job they're doing for us. If we enforce total transparency in issues (lock any classified portions away, but keep them for evidence to be potentially declassified as evidence in case it comes to light that the politician was using "classified" time to make dirty deals), there can be no conversations along the lines of:

"I'll hire you for $250,000 to come make a speech in front of my employees. But I need a political favor."

We'd have to be very strict about enforcing the cameras, not allowing politicians to communicate with anyone other than their family and friends without recording it, and make it illegal for a family member or friend to act as a middle man for non-recorded secret political related communication.

Total transparency is the solution.

  • It's too late for all that. The 1% have most of the money and all the power now that the Teapubs have complete control.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 12:04

Problem here is - it's hard to break lobbying away from freedom of speech. If a neighborhood gets together and decides they want to stop a prison from being put up next to them, that would technically be lobbying. Can't restrict the right of citizens to assemble and organize - that's right there in the constitution, and you definitely don't want to change that part.

Yes, money has gotten out of hand, and it's both major political parties that are indulging in that wellspring of cash. Look up how much money flooded the Clinton campaign in 2016, the bulk of which came from corporations and special interests. And, surprise, surprise, after the 2016 election, donations to the clinton foundation dropped to almost nothing. Almost as if those big donors were expecting something more than just a warm glow when they made those big donations.

Not defending Trump here - egad, what will he say next? Just pointing out that you need to do more than fear the alternative - you need to hold your own candidate to the same high standards. That did not happen, especially in the 2016 dem primaries.

If there is one bright spot in the 2016 election, it was proof that the lobbyists and big corporations can't buy the election. The dems outspent the repubs by at least 50%, the bulk of that from corporations and special interests. And they still lost, going up against an obnoxious boor with no political experience. There is a limit to what big money can do.

There are two ways the average person can fight off big money influence.

First... vote! Get your tail to the voting booth, not just for presidential elections, but for midterms as well. And not just main elections, primaries too. If more Sanders supporters had bothered to actually vote in the primaries... Lobby your friends to do the same (if you can't beat the lobbyists, join them). In the end, elections are decided by votes.

And second - make up your own mind before you vote. Big money means ads, both political, and commercial to favorable 'news sites', to encourage more favorable coverage. Be suspicious of what you read and see, ask yourself: what are they NOT telling me, and why? Stop looking for the quick answer, and start looking for strong character when you vote in the primaries, and in the main election.


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