Money talks: policy with a business model

It must be Groundhog Day, because British politicians are making us debate their repeatedly-failed spying legislation — how is it that some policy initiatives never die, while others can't get any traction at all?

I have a succinct explanation, laid out in my latest Guardian column: policies that have a business model (that produce a lot of profits for small groups of people) get traction, because some of the profits they generate are skimmed off and used to lobby for the policies' continuance. Policies that don't make someone rich only succeed until they run up against policies that do make people rich — at which point, the business-model policies generate enough money to pay for full-time, intensive lobbying in support of them, outspending and outresourcing any other kind of policy (even those that are demonstrably better for society)

It's a bit like going to the grocery store: actual food, like fresh fruit, meat, vegetables, eggs, and so on, is just food. There's not much to say about it. You can't make attractive health claims about carrots – you need to extract the betacarotene from them and market it as a kind of magic carrot essence that is especially good for you (even though the stuff turns out to be carcinogenic once you take it out of the carrots). It's why Michael Pollen advises that you only eat foods that no one makes health claims about. But most of the stuff your grocery store stocks and advertises is stuff that Michael Pollen says we shouldn't eat: stuff with juicy margins that generate enough profit that there's a surplus with which to market it.

"Not being spied on all the time" doesn't have a business model. The benefits of such a policy are diffused. They're the fact that you're not added to a no-fly list by an unaccountable algorithm, that you're not stopped for an illegal turn and then targeted by a Big Data oracle that says your patterns are unusual, making you a person of interest. They're the freedom to discuss private things with people of your choosing; the knowledge that your government is closing holes in your computer, rather than trying to weaponise them in case they ever need to turn your PC into a traitor, a spy in your midst. In aggregate, these benefits are worth more to all of us than BT's blood-money is worth to its shareholders, but our benefits are diffuse and long-term, and BT's benefits are concentrated and short-term.

So we get the Snooper's Charter, over and over again. Because there is money to pay for lobbyists to push for it, to big up the idea in the press every time it's floated. There's money in crassly exploiting the deaths of free-speech advocates to call for more surveillance.

No, ministers – more surveillance will not make us safer [The Guardian]

(Image: Polish pork cuts, CKpalion, CC-BY-SA)