Activists On Shakedown Street

Activists On Shakedown Street

May 01, 1999

Webster’s Dictionary defines a parasite as "one who lives at others’expense without making any useful return." This definition certainly includes the vast array of politically supported non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that depend upon coercive wealth transfers for their survival. In today’s world, liberal (more accurately, "illiberal") public interest groups are ceded government authority to extract resources from private parties. This political grant of special taxing and legal authority frees these groups (in part) from the need to demonstrate the wisdom of their policies to anyone – the polity, business, intellectuals, events to themselves.

At home, NGOs obtain money and power through such laws as the banking–related Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and the citizen suit provisions of most environmental statutes. The CRA requires that banking mergers receive the de facto endorsement of one or more self-proclaimed "consumer" groups. In theory, NGO approval ensures that corporate mergers advance the welfare of under-served communities; in practice, NGOs use such veto power to extract rents from businesses eager to restructure themselves or to enter new markets. Bribes may be illegal, but community reinvestments are very proper.

The citizen suit feature of modern environmental laws essentially delegate political enforcement power to private activist groups. They use this power to extract payment from firms or to impose costly emission control. Such groups are granted standing and authority to impose penalties for paperwork violations which may create no environmental harm. Citizen suits theoretically are designed to prevent pollution. In reality, few suits are targeted against non-profit and municipal polluters who don’t have deep pockets. Instead, as Michael Greve’s research has shown, NGOs target large companies who settle quickly. As a result, citizen suits have become little more than government–endorsed extortion games.

The domestic successes of the NGOs have inspired them to go international. NGOs now have substantial influence in the various United Nations-affiliated global bodies where trade, environmental, and other treaties are negotiated and supervised. CEI’s James Sheehan chronicles this disturbing trend in his book Global Greens (Capital Research Center, 1998): "NGOs have joined nation-states, central banks, and international agencies as institutions authorized to define the world’s problems and propose policy fixes."

Already some 1,500 groups have registered with the United Nations. The NGO influences at the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the 1994 Conference on Population and Development in Cairo cannot be overstated.

Not all NGOs are statist. CEI, after all, is an NGO. However, free market NGOs are very much in the minority. This bias toward government is altogether predictable; the same imbalance exists in the "public interest" community. Statist NGOs act as claques for the agencies they engage, consistently arguing that government "needs" greater funding, that "democracy" requires broader "stakeholder" participation (in its interest group variant) of the "right" flavor. That role attracts greater support from liberal foundations, compromise-oriented corporations, and governmental agencies.

Allowing NGOs power without responsibility poses great risks. The NGO movement threatens to replace privately, individually exercised economic power with selected public interest groups. This places national sovereignty and individual liberties increasingly at risk. But does anyone notice?

Global economic liberalization has achieved great success in this century. That success has also sadly encouraged transfers of power – not to the people (they would merely seek a better life for themselves) – but rather to a global bureaucracy and its NGO allies. If the existing bias in the NGO movement is not corrected, we face a growing gap between the people of the world and their self-appointed political leaders. The goal of the NGOs is to become the priestly or mandarin class that will bridge this gap – informing the leaders of what the people "really" want.