On the other hand, lobbying can be rather baleful such as when it is used by business interests or by others to promote causes that create injustice. This could include, for example, big businesses lobbying for regulation that keeps smaller-scale competitors out of the market.
Lobbying can be defined as: “any attempt by individuals or private interest groups to influence the decisions of government”. The conceptual distinction between lobbying and corruption is important but also complex, and there may be grey areas where the two become indistinguishable – again, something of which Pope Francis is aware. As noted above, lobbying could be undertaken for morally laudable reasons (for example, a housing charity might lobby a government to provide drug treatment centres that are designed to help homeless people). It can also be done for reasons that are morally neutral (for example a bank might lobby governments about technical aspects of regulatory capital standards in order to ensure that they work more effectively). But lobbying can also be undertaken to protect or promote vested interests thereby harming the common good.
This idea is not new. Adam Smith warned against laws that were proposed by business interests. Interestingly, he wrote that such proposals should receive the most “scrupulous” and “suspicious attention” – in other words, we should apply the virtue of prudence to such legislative suggestions coming from businesses. However, the topic has become mainstream within political economy as a result of the work of a number of economists, including Nobel Prize winners such as James Buchanan. Another prominent example is Luigi Zingales, who has a particularly compelling discussion of the problem of self-interested lobbying in the US political system.
These later authors are writing in the context of modern democratic government which the Catholic Church tends to support (see, for example, the papal encyclical of John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 46). Furthermore, democracy must involve participation. This is impossible without legitimate forms of lobbying.
“Democratic government, in fact, is defined first of all by the assignment of powers and functions on the part of the people, exercised in their name, in their regard and on their behalf. It is therefore clearly evident that every democracy must be participative. This means that the different subjects of civil community at every level must be informed, listened to and involved in the exercise of the carried-out functions.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 190).
It is very difficult to imagine a political system that is able to prevent lobbying whilst allowing effective participation. This is interesting because, if lobbying can be harmful or good and if participation is important, it indicates the need for the exercise of the virtues by those who are in a position to lobby. Lobbying cannot entirely be controlled by the law (indeed, we probably should also be suspicious of those who lobby to control lobbying!).
The usurpation of democracy for private interests is a theme that could and should be more developed in Catholic social thought and teaching. As it happens, Pope Francis has raised the topic. In his encyclical devoted to the consideration of problems affecting the environment, Laudato si, he wrote:
“Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” (Laudato si, 20).
It should not come as a surprise, given the understanding Christians have of human nature, that businesses and individuals will work through the political system to pursue their own interests. We would suggest that this is a really important area for further consideration in the realm of Catholic social thought and teaching and that a virtue ethics approach is a particularly good framework within which to consider the problem and the distinction between virtuous, vicious and morally neutral lobbying.