Bryan Caplan has a very nice piece here:
Special-Interest Secret: No wonder special interests so often get their way. They do not have to force their policies down the public's throat, or sneak them through Congress unnoticed. To succeed, special interests only need to persuade politicians to swim with the current of public opinion. Why would the majority favor policies that hurt the majority? There is a good reason. The majority favors these policies because the average person underestimates the social benefits of the free market, especially for international and labor markets. In a phrase, the public suffers from anti-market bias. Economists have spent centuries explaining how markets channel greedy intentions into socially desirable results; how trade is mutually beneficial both within and between countries; how using price controls to redistribute income inflicts a lot of collateral damage. These are the lessons of every economics textbook. Contrary to the stereotype that they can't agree, economists across the political spectrum, from Paul Krugman to Greg Mankiw, see eye to eye on these basic lessons.
Unfortunately, most people resist even the most basic lessons of economics. As every introductory teacher of the subject knows, students are not blank slates. On the first day of class, they arrive with strong -- and usually misguided -- beliefs about economics. Convincing students to rethink their anti-market views is no easy task. The principles of economics are intellectually compelling; but emotionally, they fall flat. It feels better to believe that greedy intentions imply bad consequences, that foreigners destroy our prosperity and that price controls are a harmless way to transfer income. Given these economic prejudices, we should expect policies like steel tariffs, farm subsidies and the minimum wage to be popular.
None of this means that special interests don't matter, but it does put their activities in a new light. Special interests do not have to sneak behind the majority's back; they just need to ask for the right favor in the right way. The steel lobby could have demanded a big handout from the federal government. But that would have struck many voters as welfare for the rich; steel-makers can't expect the same treatment as farmers, can they? Instead, the steel lobby took the crowd-pleasing route of blaming foreigners and asking for tariffs. Tariffs were less direct than a naked subsidy from Washington, but they enriched the steel industry without alienating the majority.
If special-interest legislation were fundamentally unpopular, public relations campaigns... would serve only to warn taxpayers about plans to pick their pockets. Since the public shares interest groups' critique of the free market, however, there is room for persuasion.... [A] good public relations campaign can -- and often does -- change the public's mind....
In a monarchy, no one likes to blame the king for bad decisions. So instead of blaming the king himself, critics point their fingers at his wicked, incompetent and corrupt advisers. While this is a good way to keep your head, it is hard to take seriously. Kings often make bad decisions; and in any case, if his advisers are hurting the country, isn't it the king's fault for listening to them?
In a democracy, similarly, no one likes to blame the majority for bad decisions. So instead of blaming the majority, critics point their fingers at special interests. But this too is hard to take seriously. The majority often makes bad decisions; and in any case, if special interests are hurting the country, isn't it the majority's fault for listening to them?
We often ponder special-interest politics in order to solve a mystery: "Why aren't policies better?" Realizing how many bad policies are here by popular demand turns this question upside down. The real mystery is not why policies aren't better. The real mystery of politics is why policies aren't a lot worse.