For a quick post just before the election, let’s take up the suggestion from some folks that the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) is some sort of “special interest.” A basic question must come first: What is a special interest?
For those of us who study political philosophy, “special interest” is a completely neutral term. It refers to an organization or group whose motivation for political activity is not general, but specific, or special. If your group advocates for things that affect everybody equally (or, at least, that don’t benefit your group in particular), you are a “general interest.” If your group is trying to get taxpayer dollars for something that uniquely benefits your group, then you’re a “special interest.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. To some extent, it’s how our government is supposed to work. But that’s what the words mean.
TTA advocates for increased value for the taxpayer dollar and, where appropriate, lower taxes. That applies to everybody. Even if one were to insist that TTA members have more-expensive houses (and therefore pay higher taxes), the reality is that the benefits of TTA advocacy are broadly distributed. That’s true not only because every homeowner pays taxes, but also because a high tax rate in Tiverton appears to reduce the value of high-end houses, which shifts the tax burden toward the owners of lower-end houses. In short, TTA is a general interest group.
So what would be a special interest group? One obvious example would be a labor union representing a category of town employees. The entire mission of the unions is to increase the compensation and leverage of their members. That will often involve promoting the work that union members do (which is theoretically of general benefit), but the unions’ role in our system is to advocate for the employees as a special group. The term, “special interest,” could also apply (but less strongly) to residents who rely on a particular service that other residents don’t use.
By any of these measures, TTA cannot reasonably be called a “special interest.”