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Vested Interests and Political
TERRY M. MOE
VESTED INTERESTS ARE PART OF THE EVERYDAY LANGUAGE of
political science. But they are not part of its theories, at least not in
any explicit or systematic way. My argument here is that, particularly
in our efforts to understand the stability and change of political institu-
tions, vested interests are not only substantively important—which is
why political scientists cannot help but talk about them—but also
have great analytic value and provide an especially productive basis for
If we think about political institutions in terms of the formal structures
of government, including governmental programs and the structural ar-
rangements surrounding them, a good place to begin is with a few simple
but profound facts. Vested interests are present in every realm of public
policy—in health care, defense, agriculture, transportation, international
trade, you name it—in every part of the world. All institutions, across all
policy arenas, everywhere, naturally and inevitably generate them, simply
because certain people and groups reap benefits (often in very different
ways) from what the institutions do. Vested interests then have strong
incentives to protect those institutions when faced with threatening
reforms—and in the politics of change, therefore, they have the potential
to be powerful forces for stability. This is a universal phenomenon that,
when built into our theories, stands to tell us a great deal about the political
TERRY M. MOE is the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at
Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has written extensively
on political institutions, with particular attention to issues of power and special interests.
His most recent book is Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools.
POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY | Volume 130 Number 2 2015 | www.psqonline.org
#2015 Academy of Political Science DOI: 10.1002/polq.12321 277
dynamics of stability and change as they apply to all institutions in all
The notion that vested interests are fundamental to an understanding of
political institutions is not new. It is actually very old and rooted in some of
the field’s classic works—Bernstein’sRegulating Business by Independent
Commission, Schattschneider’sThe Semisovereign People, McConnell’s
Private Power and American Democracy, Lowi’sThe End of Liberalism,
Olson’sThe Rise and Decline of Nations, and more—which laid bare the
prevalence of iron triangles and policy subsystems, client politics, regula-
tory capture, interest group liberalism, and other means by which powerful
interest groups, usually business groups, staked out their own niches of
American government and shielded them from reformist and democratiz-
As the modern theory of political institutions has developed over the
decades, scholars have been well aware of these classic works, along
with the power of vested interests. But the edifice of theory they have
constructed—in a research program that is one of the great success stories in
political science—has grown to be quite complex, conditional, and multifac-
eted. There is a lot going on in the theory, a large number of “relevant factors”
being simultaneously juggled, and, I have to say, a reluctance on the part of
scholars to be sufficiently selective in separating the important from the less
important. In the process, and notwithstanding all the genuine progress, the
key role of vested interests has gotten lost in the shuffle. They are not a focus
of theoretical attention. Their analytic value has gone untapped.
Throughout this discussion, as a matter of convenience I will sometimes use the term “vested interests”to
refer to the interests held by certain actors and sometimes to refer to the actors themselves as they embody or
pursue those interests.
Marver H. Bernstein, Regulating Business by Independent Commission (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1955); E.E. Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy
in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960); Grant McConnell, Private Power and
American Democracy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966); Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism:
Ideology, Policy, and the Crisis of Public Authority (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969); and Mancur Olson,
The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagﬂation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 1984).
In discussing the literature, I will focus here on the two bodies of theory that, on matters related to the
historical development and dynamics of political institutions,have arguably been the most influential within
politicalscience: the theory of punctuated equilibriumand theories associatedwith historical institutionalism.
In the latter, I include Douglass North’s work. To make mytask manageable, I do not extendmy discussion to
rational choicetheories of institutions (North aside).I should emphasize, though, that the latter—tothe extent
they attempt to say somethingabout genuine historical dynamics—are not well equipped to do that, rooted as
they are in a methodology of equilibrium and comparative statics. For a fuller statement of my own on these
matters, see Terry M. Moe, “The Revolution in Presidential Studies,”Presidential Studies Quarterly 9
(December 2009):701–724. See also Avner Greif and David D. Laitin, “A Theory of Endogenous Institutional
Change,”American Political Science Review 98 (November 2004): 633–652; and Robert H. Bates, Avner
Greif, Margaret Levi, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, and Barry R. Weingast, Analytic Narratives (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1998).
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The inattention to vested interests has only increased over the last decade
or so as scholars have chosen to invest more and more of their efforts in
exploring the change side of the equation. This shift has added to the
complexity because major changes in institutions—which often turn on
serendipitous timing, confluences of events, and the like—are far more diffi-
cult to explain than stability. But another consequence of the shift is that
scholars have grown more interested in exploring the drivers of change—the
agents, the ideas, the windows of opportunity, and so on—and less interested
in exploring, and making analytical use of, the basic forces of resistance that
must be overcome. Vested interests, as key forces for stability, have thus
become still more remote from what scholars think about and study.
My aim here is to put a spotlight on vested interests and to argue their
analytic value to the larger theory of political institutions. I begin by
discussing how vested interests have (and have not) figured into theoretical
work on the historical dynamics of institutional stability and change. I go
on to set out some of the basic theoretical building blocks that bear on the
behavior, power, and institutional consequences of vested interests—the
kinds of components that are rightly at the heart of a productive theory and
provide an essential foundation for understanding change (or its absence).
In the second part of the article, I apply these theoretical arguments to a
substantive case, one that I have studied for many years: American educa-
tion reform. My purpose is not to test the theory in any rigorous sense, for
what I offer here are just the basic elements of one. Rather, it is to move from
the abstract to the concrete, showing what the vested interests actually look
like in this very real and important policy realm, how they have behaved, how
that behavior and its consequences square with what the theory would tend
to suggest—and, bottom line, how vested interests have shaped, and help us
to understand, the nation’s 30-year effort to reform its public school system.
THE THEORY OF INSTITUTIONAL STABILITY AND CHANGE
In today’s pursuit of institutional theory, the study of change is where the
action is. And there can be little mystery why scholars find it so attractive.
Change fuels the dynamic of history, and if we want to understand
the trajectory of American government or any other government in the
world, it surely makes sense to study institutional innovations—such as the
New Deal or the War on Poverty or the Affordable Care Act—as well as
long-term institutional developments and to make them the targets of
explanation and theory. Especially in its more disruptive forms, change is
exciting. It is often the product of political struggle. It takes nations in new
directions and can be truly transformative. Stability is downright boring by
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 279
When it comes to theory building, though, these sorts of considerations
are not of the essence. The fact is, political scientists have been studying
institutional stability and change for decades, and they have made consid-
erable progress in building an enlightening body of theory. But they did not
do it by focusing on change. They did it, at least initially and for many years,
by devoting much attention to stability—and making that their analytic
foundation for the theory as a whole. In choosing this path, they were
simply recognizing a pervasive feature of reality: institutions tend to be
stable. What we mean by stability is debatable at the margins. But by any
reasonable account, stability is the normal state of existence for institu-
tions, and it is absolutely central to any effort to understand them.
The distinctive claim of Baumgartner and Jones’s widely embraced
theory of punctuated equilibrium, for instance, is that public policies
and the institutional systems associated with them are subject to “[l]ong
periods of stability . . . interrupted by bursts of frenetic policy activity”that
may lead to major change.
Stability is the norm, major change is the
exception, and the core components of their theory—which have to do,
among other things, with policy subsystems and the vested interests com-
prising them—are designed to explain why this is so.
Similarly, much of the vast theoretical literature associated with histori-
cal institutionalism was founded during the 1980s and 1990s on work that
aimed to understand the universal tendency of institutions toward stability,
particularly institutions associated with the welfare state, which were then
coming under pressure. What this work showed—think of Pierson’s work
on retrenchment attempts by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—was
that, even with surging pressures for change led by strong political figures,
actual reform was limited. Potent forces for stability were operating to
protect the status quo. Douglass North’s Nobel Prize-winning work on
economic and political institutions, which might well be considered part of
historical institutionalism, puts much the same emphasis on stability—
highlighting, especially, the tendency of even horribly inefficient institu-
tions to persist and undermine economic growth.
Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, 2nd ed.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), xvii.
The explicit reference is to Paul Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the
Politics of Retrenchment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); see also Pierson, “When Effect
Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change,”World Politics 45 (July 1993): 595–628; and
Pierson and Theda Skocpol, “Historical Institutionalism in Contemporary Political Science,”in Ira Katz-
nelson and Helen V. Milner, eds., Political Science: The State of the Discipline (New York: W.W. Norton),
693–721. The most representative of North’s work is Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change
and Economic Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
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Another reason this early work proved so productive is that patterned,
enduring presences in the world are simply much more conducive to theory
than phenomena that occur unpredictably when the stars happen to line
up just right. Stability and change are intertwined, of course, and each
ultimately must be understood with reference to the other. But stability is
the normal state of affairs, and the forces promoting it—path dependence,
for instance, and its various self-reinforcing mechanisms, including the
protective role of vested interests—are persistent, recurring, and amenable
to being identified and understood. Reformist attempts to bring about
major change, by contrast, tend to be extraordinarily complicated—in
terms of multiple actors, complex interactions, unanticipated events, de-
pendence on serendipitous timing and confluence, and so on—and, as a
result, very difficult to theorize about in ways that are analytically clear,
coherent, and lead to genuine explanatory power.
Political scientists, then, have been quite successful at building a
theory of political institutions over the past few decades—and they
have done it, in effect, by working from a foundation that explains
why institutions are so stable. The explanation of stability has served
as their bedrock of theoretical progress. And vested interests are an
integral part of that bedrock.
Understanding Change by Understanding Stability
As this impressive theoretical foundation was being constructed, many
scholars came to see stability and its determinants as less and less prob-
lematic and to bemoan what Streeck and Thelen called the “impoverished
state of theorizing on issues of institutional change.”
took center stage as the key analytic challenge going forward.
One result, as I have noted, has been a shift in attention to the drivers
and determinants of change: the political entrepreneurs, ideas, framing,
windows of opportunity, and other elements that, since Kingdon’s seminal
work on agendas, have provided conceptual tools for gaining analytic
traction, particularly on major legislative breakthroughs (or attempts to
A major influence on theoretical thinking about change is John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and
Public Policies, updated 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Longman, 2010). Originally published in 1984, Kingdon’s
book contains many of the complexities still being juggled in the literature. A prime example is Baumgartner
and Jones’s seminal Agendas and Instability in American Politics, which is at least as much about change
as stability and offers a very complex theory to explain it. For an effort to try to manage these complexities
and arrive at a more structured approach to change, see Steven M. Teles, The Rise of the Conservative Legal
Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Wolfgang Streeck and Kathleen Thelen, “Introduction: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Econ-
omies,”in Streeck and Thelen, eds., Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political
Economies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1–39, at 3.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 281
At the same time, though, scholars have also been pressing
for a more expansive view of what institutional change is and what the
theory ultimately should be about. They have argued, in particular, that
institutional stability and (the rare occurrence of) major change are not the
only possibilities of scholarly interest, as the theory of punctuated equilib-
rium would seem to suggest, and as historical institutionalism’s logic of
critical junctures would seem to suggest as well. Rather, they claim,
incremental and apparently minor changes, which arise endogenously
within otherwise stable contexts, can accumulate over long stretches of
time to yield adjustments and alterations of real consequence, even
The result of this revisionist thinking has been a second wave of research
whose aim is to recognize the potential significance of gradual institution-
al change and to explain it as an integral part of the larger theory. This
second wave has led to elaborations that attempt to shed light on different
types of gradual change—institutional layering, drift, conversion, erosion,
diffusion—and to analyses that, compared with those of the past, provide a
more nuanced understanding of what change involves and how interest-
ingly varied and consequential it can be, even though it is often “merely”
These are important contributions. And necessary. But as change has
come to dominate the scholarly agenda, leading figures in the field have
spoken out forcefully about how this work can best promote the develop-
ment of theory. The way to proceed, they argue, is not simply to focus on
change or conduct new research on it but rather to study it—and seek to
explain it—by taking advantage of the strong theoretical foundation that
already exists to explain stability. As Hall put it, “Institutional stability is a
foundational issue for analyses of institutional change.”
Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies.
See, for example, James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen, “A Theory of Gradual Institutional Change,”in
Mahoney and Thelen, eds., Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1–37; Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of
Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States and Japan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003);
Streeck and Thelen, “Introduction: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies”; Jacob S.
Hacker, “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State: The Hidden Politics of Social Policy
Retrenchment in the United States,”American Political Science Review 98 (May 2004): 243–260; Eric
Schickler, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Teles, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement;
and Jacob S. Hacker, Paul Pierson, and Kathleen Thelen, “Drift and Conversion: Hidden Faces of
Institutional Change,”paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Associa-
tion, Philadelphia, 7–9 February 2013.
Peter A. Hall, “Historical Institutionalism in Rationalist and Sociological Perspective,”in Mahoney and
Thelen, Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power, 204–223.
282 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
Pierson goes into great detail on the subject in his pathbreaking Politics
in Time. He argues that studies of change often focus on cases when
reformers have been successful and that “it is probably not accidental
that this literature has placed heavy weight on the role of particular kinds
of actors—entrepreneurs, ‘skilled social actors,’and ‘losers’—in generating
This is a literature, he argues, that is “overly preoccupied
with studying the contributions of institutional reformers”and does not
embed its analysis in a larger perspective on the underlying forces of
resilience—and thus stability—that make reformist goals so difficult to
achieve. “[U]nderstanding the preconditions for particular types of insti-
tutional change,”he emphasizes, “requires attentiveness not only to the
pressures for reform but also to the character and extent of resistance to
such pressures. Change and stability are two sides of the same coin. . . . An
adequate theory of institutional development must pay sustained attention
to the issue of institutional resilience.”
When such an integrated approach is followed, I should emphasize, the
study of change is not mainly about entrepreneurs or ideas. It is at least as
much about the vast forces of institutional protection arrayed against them
and, most important, the political power of the opposition—which will
often be led or heavily bolstered by the vested interests that benefit from
those institutions. Ideas may surely have public appeal; entrepreneurs may
frame policy issues to gain political advantage; and reformers may exercise
a measure of power as a result. But their challenge is not simply to exercise
power. It is to overcome power. And unless they can do that they will fail, or
they will settle for minor gains instead of major ones. Much of what we
need to know about change and its severe limitations, then, is already
inherent in the stability of the system and the structure of power that
The forces of resilience, I should emphasize, have consequences that go
far beyond their obstruction of change. For when change does occur,
usually in some incremental form, these forces also shape its content
and direction. The latter are not simple choices on the part of entrepre-
neurs, who somehow use their skills and windows of opportunity to get
their ideas adopted. In a world of institutional stability, reformers are
heavily constrained by power. Most choices that entrepreneurs would like
to make—in overhauling institutions that are performing badly, say—are
ruled out because too much power is arrayed against them. And so they do
Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2004), 141.
Pierson, Politics in Time, 142.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 283
what they can, when they can, taking baby steps when they would like to
take giant steps—and generating incremental changes that, most often, are
simply layered on top of what already exists. Reforms are often adopted not
because they genuinely solve social problems, or even because they
make logical sense, but rather because the prevailing constraints of power
happened to make those incremental gains possible. Change is power
constrained. And it is only by understanding these constraints that we
can understand change itself.
Thus, whether the change we seek to explain is major or incremental,
abrupt or gradual, the analytic fundamentals are the same. Change is
rooted in stability, and any effort to build a productive theory of change
must take full advantage of what the theory of stability already has to tell us
(or, with further development, could tell us) about the forces of resilience
that protect the status quo.
Lost in the Shufﬂe
Prominent among these forces of resilience are vested interests. That this is
so is hardly a secret. As I have said, their key roles in resisting change—and,
more generally, in shaping the operation of government—have been
highlighted in some of the discipline’s classic works. That tradition has
been continued in more recent contributions, among them Acemoglu and
Robinson’sThe Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy and
Why Nations Fail (although, tellingly, the concept of vested interest is put
to no analytic use in these books and plays no role in their theoretical
No one doubts that vested interests are substantively important, and no
one raises an eyebrow when they are singled out for attention. Yet in the
elaborate body of theory that scholars have built up to explain institutional
stability and change, vested interests are only occasionally mentioned, and
there has been no systematic attempt to clarify what they are or what they
do, to accord them a central role, or to put the concept to serious analytic
use. This has not been the result of a decision by scholars to push vested
interests aside but rather of a conscientious effort to be comprehensive,
which has led to the inclusion of so many “relevant factors”that vested
interests have gotten submerged in the crowd.
The theory of punctuated equilibrium argues that institutional stability
has a lot to do with policy subsystems, the interests that occupy them, and
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2006); Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail (New York: Crown
284 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
the power those interests wield in obstructing change. But Baumgartner
and Jones rarely use the term “vested interest.”And when they home in on
policy subsystems, they are vague and expansive about who the relevant
actors are and what they are doing there—referring, for example, to
“differential intensities of preference,”“the self-interested,”and “special-
ists, experts, and others with an economic interest in the nature of public
Their explanation of stability, moreover, is exceedingly complex. It
recognizes that those with a special interest in a policy subsystem have
advantages in politics and can wield power in preventing change. But for
the most part, their analysis is not about power (and not about vested
interests). It is largely about the role of ideas, policy images, issue defi-
nitions, framing, interpretations, shared understandings, and the like in
shaping both stability and change—and about the more fundamental,
underlying role of bounded rationality and thus the “cognitive and emo-
tional constraints”on political actors.
Countless variables populate the
theory, and vested interests are most often lost in the shuffle.
This is less the case in historical institutionalism. A key argument at its
very core—the theory of policy feedback, which is now central to its larger
theory of path dependence—is that policies and institutions give rise to
constituencies that benefit from their existence, have vested interests in
seeing them maintained, and use their political power to prevent change.
This is a literature, moreover, that is often about power. As Mahoney and
Thelen note, “most historical institutionalists embrace a power-
political view of institutions that emphasizes their distributional effects,
and many of them explain institutional persistence in terms of increasing
returns to power.”
Even so, vested interests have not been serious targets of theory build-
ing. In this body of work, the constituencies generated by policy feedback
have typically been the mass constituencies that benefit from welfare state
programs—citizens who receive publicly provided pensions, for example.
These mass constituencies are indeed vested interests. But then, so are the
See, for example, Baumgartner and Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, 19.
Baumgartner and Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, see especially chapter 2. Quote is
from page xxiii.
On policy feedback, see Paul Pierson, “When Effect Becomes Cause”; Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers
and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 1992); Andrea Louise Campbell, How Policies Make Citizens: Senior Political
Activism and the American Welfare State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); and Suzanne
B. Mettler, “Bringing the State Back In to Civic Engagement: Policy Feedback Effects of the G.I. Bill for
World War II Veterans,”American Political Science Review 96 (June 2002): 351–365.
Mahoney and Thelen, “A Theory of Gradual Institutional Change,”7.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 285
public sector unions that represent the job interests of public employees,
which are just as much an outgrowth of policy feedback as mass constit-
uencies are. Yet their relevance to theory—and stability—has gone largely
unrecognized. And they are not alone. The concept of vested interests is
really not a valued part of the analytics, and it is not a tool that scholars
regularly seek to employ in building the theory.
Another reason vested interests have received limited attention from
historical institutionalists has to do, again, with complexity. Although the
logic of path dependence is critical to an understanding of institutions and
has helped bring greater coherence to the field, the filling out of that
logic has nonetheless involved a complicated array of factors—such as
adaptive expectations, learning, commitments, networks, and institutional
interdependencies—that sends analysis and thinking off in many direc-
tions. A host of other theoretical notions—having to do, for example, with
such things as multiple orders, intercurrence, critical junctures, regimes—
shape scholarly perspectives as well. As all these diverse notions and lines of
thinking come into play, vested interests are somewhere in the mix at least
some of the time. But they have no clear or central role to play. This is the
case, I should note, not only for the vast body of historical institutionalism
developed by political scientists, but also for North’s influential “economic”
work on institutions–which builds insightfully on path dependence, but
submerges vested interests in a theoretical framework that is extraordi-
narily complex and multifaceted.
I do not mean to suggest that all the other components of the theory are
somehow unworthy. Far from it. But I do think that there is great value
in simplicity, clarity, and focusing squarely on fundamentals. Vested in-
terests are fundamental to an understanding of why institutions tend to be
stable—and that being so, they are essential for understanding why, when,
and how institutions might be changed. They need to be at the heart of the
THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF A THEORY
How can this best be done? No doubt, people much smarter than I will
ultimately determine that, and it may take a good deal of time and
cumulative effort. For now, I simply want to lay out some building blocks
that may be helpful in moving ahead. From the outset, it is important to
See, for example, the great many variables that populate the theoretical discussions in Pierson, Politics in
Time; Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, The Search for American Political Development (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2004); and North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic
286 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
recognize that, in ordinary language and even in some scholarly work, the
term “vested interests”tends to be used when the intent is to convey
something pejorative. To label groups as vested interests is to criticize
them, to voice disapproval of their behavior, to say that they are bad.
This negative connotation is entirely unnecessary, and it gets in the way
of our capacity as political scientists to put the concept to objective,
What Are Vested Interests?
In the context of institutional theory, what is distinctive about vested
interests—and what is distinctively valuable about their theoretical
role—is not solely that they are special interests or that they express
“differential intensities of preference”but rather that they arise from the
very institutions whose stability and change we want to explain. This is
a phenomenon, moreover, that is universal. Vested interests arise in
all government institutions, in all countries of the world, because certain
people and groups benefit from what the institutions do or make possible—
for example, through the services they provide, the supplies they purchase,
or the jobs they fund.
The classic vested interests are business firms. In the United States,
insurance and pharmaceutical companies have vested interests in the
health care system because their revenues are deeply rooted in the way
the system is organized.
Defense contractors have vested interests in the
governmental defense programs that generate funds for the weapons
systems, airplanes, vehicles, and satellites that their firms produce.
Agribusinesses have vested interests in government programs that bolster
their prices, give them subsidies, and thus raise their incomes and reduce
In all capitalist systems, whatever the variety, businesses get woven into
the fabric of government in countless ways, wedding their interests to the
See, for example, Paul Starr, Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care
Reform, revised ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); Jacob S. Hacker, The Divided Welfare
State: The Battle over Public and Private Social Beneﬁts in the United States (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2002); Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts, “It’s the Institutions, Stupid! Why Comprehensive
National Health Insurance Always Fails in America,”Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 20
(Summer 1995): 329–372.
See, for example, James Ledbetter, Unwarranted Inﬂuence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-
Industrial Complex (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
See, for example, Gordon C. Rausser, “Predatory versus Productive Government: The Case of U.S.
Agricultural Policies,”Journal of Economic Perspectives 6 (Summer 1992): 133–157; Geoffrey P. Miller,
“Public Choice at the Dawn of the Special Interest State: The Story of Butter and Margarine,”California
Law Review 77 (January 1989): 83–131; and Eric M. Patashnik, Reforms at Risk: What Happens after
Major Policy Changes Are Enacted? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 287
institutions they are part of. There are analogues throughout the world,
across radically different economic systems, where various “businesses”
have their own distinctive stakes in the institutional status quo—from the
state-run enterprises in China to the army-run enterprises in Egypt to
the oligarch-run businesses in Russia. These are but the tip of a massive
iceberg of economic vested interests, pervasively present everywhere that
Businesses are hardly the only social actors with vested interests in
government institutions. We also need to include the mass constituencies
that benefit from what the government’s agencies and programs do—the
senior citizens that benefit from Social Security and Medicare, the home-
owners that benefit from the U.S. tax code, the low-income families that
benefit from Medicaid, the local populations that benefit from police
and fire protection, and on and on. All of these constituencies have vested
interests in the specific institutions that supply them with benefits. And
while the specifics may change from place to place, similar constituencies
are present throughout the world, wherever there are governments that
provide citizens with services and protections that they value.
Mass constituencies are made up of private citizens; and in Western
nations, most businesses are private too. But vested interests are by no
means limited to private sector actors. Public actors obviously have vested
interests in government institutions as well, and they can be pivotal to an
explanation of stability and change. Notable among them are the public
employees who work for those institutions and whose incomes, careers,
and families depend on them. This is a phenomenon of great potential
importance to the politics of all countries, whatever the economy or
culture. For all governments are staffed by public workers—often, in the
aggregate, huge numbers of them—and these workers have vested interests
in seeing to it that “their”institutions continue to attract money, programs,
Finally, politicians and party leaders—especially in developing nations—
often have vested interests in political institutions and governmental pro-
grams for the patronage they enable and the money that can be extracted
from them. Even in developed nations, moreover, governmental agencies—
treated as actors in their own right, just as business firms are—have vested
For analyses of mass constituencies, see, for example, Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State?; Pierson,
“When Effect Becomes Cause”; Campbell, How Policies Make Citizens; and Mettler, “Bringing the State
Back In to Civic Engagement.”
See Daniel DiSalvo, Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences and American
Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Terry M. Moe, Special Interest: Teachers
Unions and America’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011).
288 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
interests in their own survival and well-being. That this is so is obvious and
well documented, but it is also more complicated than it might seem, and in
ways that are intriguing and consequential. I will not go into these issues
here; the case study on education will help shed some interesting light on
them. I will simply point out that in the United States, agency “leaders”are
typically presidential (or gubernatorial) appointees from outside the agen-
cy; and because they may bring with them an outside political agenda, they
may insist upon budget cuts, policy redirections, organizational reforms, or
even (rarely) killing the agency altogether—moves that threaten agency
vested interests and that agency careerists typically do not support. The
bigger picture, however, is that appointees come and go. Presidents do too.
And the careerists stay. They maintain a continuous presence and influence,
and so, somewhere at the core, do their vested interests in the agency’s
survival and well-being. Because this is so, bureaucracies tend to protect
their autonomy, to resist external control, and to stand up for themselves.
A Single Deﬁnition?
If scholars were to push hard for a clear definition of vested interest, there
would surely be disagreements at the margin. This is unavoidable, as
definitions are not a matter of right or wrong but of what is most useful
for theory; and for now, that cannot be known. As long as there is a core
meaning that can be clearly understood, though, theory can move ahead.
After all, the theory of institutions has made great progress over the
decades, and there is still no consensus on what the concept of institution
means. Something similar can be said about the concept of power and
many others. Ambiguity at the margins may even be a healthy thing,
allowing for adaptability and new directions as the theory grows.
So we need not insist on a single, ironclad definition of vested interest at
this point. That said, there are a few definitional matters worth discussing
as a basis for moving forward. One is whether, for people and groups to
have a vested interest in an institution, the benefits they receive must be
material benefits (in some sense).
A second is whether, as citizens see it,
the benefits are being directly provided to them by the institution. A third
is whether the benefits need to be concentrated or can also be diffuse.
I mention the third point because it derives from a familiar typology and
reflects much conventional wisdom about vested interests: that they are
See, for example, James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It
(New York: Basic Books, 1989).
This would include such things as power and control, which can readily be translated into material
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 289
small groups that receive substantial benefits from “their”programs and
institutions, with costs widely diffused over the larger population. As I have
indicated, it makes good theoretical sense to recognize that mass constit-
uencies, as beneficiaries of government programs, do indeed have vested
interests in those programs—and historical institutionalists have recog-
nized as much in their research. So the concentrated-benefit criterion
The other two criteria—that the benefits need to be material and direct
—are more persuasive. Consider, for example, the case of the Environmen-
tal Protection Agency (EPA), which provides all Americans with clean air
and water. Would we want to say that all Americans therefore have a vested
interest in that institution, and thus, by extension, that environmental
groups, in their protection of the agency and its programs, are acting as
vested interests? For now, my own view is that the best starting-
point answer is probably no—although scholars may surely differ, and
I am not entirely convinced myself. I demur because the benefits are so
indirect and so tenuously material—no one is getting a check in the
mail from the EPA—that citizens are very unlikely (except in dire circum-
stances) to perceive themselves as having a vested interest in the agency or
its programs. There is too much of a disconnect with this kind of public
I am not closing the door on these matters. Scholars need to debate
them. But it makes sense to begin by thinking of vested interests in terms of
material benefits that people and groups see as directly provided to them by
particular institutions or programs. These benefits need not be concen-
trated in a relatively small set of recipients; they can be diffused over a very
large constituency, as long as the people within it see the benefits as
important and as coming to them directly through the institution. Senior
citizens perceive Social Security that way. They probably do not see clean
air or clean water that way.
An alternative approach, to which I have some sympathies, is that anyone who benefits from what
institutions do (such as producing clean air) can be considered as having a vested interest in those
institutions, and any associated interest groups (such as environmental groups) can be thought of as
representing those vested interests. We might think, more generally, of “hard”vested interests (such as
Social Security benefits) and “soft”vested interests (such as clean air) and perhaps a continuum in between.
A downside of this approach is that it uses the term “vested interest”in a way that will sometimes fly in the
face of common language. It is perhaps too expansive. The upside is that it stays true to what is distinctive
about vested interests: namely, that they are rooted in whatever benefits arise from the institutions
themselves-and if those benefits happen to be remote and indirect, so be it. Such an approach simply
leads to interesting variation, which political scientists can investigate and perhaps use to theoretical
290 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
Again, there are no objectively correct answers here. As the theory
develops, we will get a better sense of what definition works best.
In putting vested interests to theoretical use, we need to begin by recog-
nizing that they stand to be of great motivational consequence. As such,
they tell us a good deal about how key institutional actors can be expected
to behave. Two implications are especially important.
The first is that, when people and organizations have vested interests in
a given institutional system, they will tend to see transformative change—
involving major alterations in public programs, and not just an expansion
or strengthening of what exists—as disruptive to the sources of their
benefits. Real change threatens a future in which their benefits are reduced
or eliminated or there is considerable uncertainty about what their benefits
will be. Vested interests will therefore tend to oppose efforts to bring about
major reform. There are exceptions, as I will discuss later. But opposition is
To be clear, the reason this tends to be the norm is that reformist
movements typically arise out of an asymmetry: vested interests benefit
from the status quo, and thus they are disinclined to seek radical changes in
the established order—while pressure for radical change typically comes
from reformers who do not like the established order and make proposals
that are threatening to those who do. We need to recognize, moreover, that
even if the changes stood to be (with some risk) neutral or vaguely
beneficial to the vested interests, prospect theory—which is well docu-
mented—would lead us to expect resistance from them anyway: for actors
that benefit from the status quo generally prefer to keep what they have
rather than face the risk of change (and of losing the guarantee of existing
There is no presumption here, I should note, that reform is always good
for society. Even popular institutions, such as Medicare, sometimes have
powerful enemies (Tea Party Republicans, for example) that would surely
like to enact radical reforms—and the vested interests (senior citizens, as
represented by AARP) can then be expected to oppose any such efforts, and
thus to protect popular institutions from change. Vested interests can
oppose reform, then, and still be taking actions that most citizens would
applaud. But the relevant point here is the purely objective one that
predicts their behavior: they will tend to oppose major change.
See, for example, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under
Risk,”Econometrica 47 (March 1979): 263–291.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 291
The second implication, however, is that they will tend to do this even if
the institutions are performing badly and, by any objective standard, need
to be transformed or eliminated. This willingness to defend poorly per-
forming institutions applies with special force to groups whose vested
interests arise from profits or jobs. An institution that is quite ineffective
or unwarranted from the standpoint of social welfare, or has long outlived
its usefulness, can still be hugely valuable to its own employees, the
businesses it contracts with, and the beneficiaries of its operation—and
they will use their power to defend it.
Economists widely agree, for example, that the New Deal–era system of
farm subsidies is a horribly inefficient and unfair way of managing the
nation’s agricultural sector. Yet for many decades, agribusinesses and their
allies have used their political power to keep the system in place and the
Similarly, the U.S. health care system has long been
grossly inefficient, causing Americans to pay much more than the citizens
of other developed nations as a percentage of gross domestic product for
health outcomes that are no better. Yet for more than half a century,
insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, law-
yers, and many other vested interests have routinely used their political
power to beat back reform efforts.
When reform finally came under the
Barack Obama administration in 2010, moreover, it took the form of a
cobbled-together restructuring of the prevailing system that preserved the
privileged positions of the key vested interests and did far less to get costs
under control than reformers had hoped.
The logic I have constructed here is very simple. But even if we ignore all
the other self-reinforcing mechanisms that historical institutionalists have
rightly associated with path dependence, it follows from this simple logic
alone—a reflection of policy feedback—that all institutions contain the
seeds of their own stability. They all generate vested interests, and they all
stand to be protected and stabilized by whatever power the vested interests
can bring to bear in politics when major reform becomes a threat.
You might think that mass constituencies, as the beneficiaries of institutional programs, would be
exceptions—and thus that bad performance would lead them to support major reform. But this is unlikely.
They benefit from the existing system, even if the system is not performing well. And while reformers can
promise that radical change would leave them better off, all such promises involve great uncertainty about
what the new programs will actually look like, how valuable they will actually be, and whether they will even
materialize. As cognitive psychologists have long known, people faced with such uncertainty tend to favor
the status quo, even if they do not like it much. Again, see Kahneman and Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An
Analysis of Decision under Risk.”
See, for example, Patashnik, Reforms at Risk; and Rausser, “Predatory versus Productive Government.”
See Starr, Remedy and Reaction; Hacker, The Divided Welfare State; and Steinmo and Watts, “It’s the
See Starr, Remedy and Reaction.
292 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
Power and Political Advantage
For this protective shield to work reliably over time, the vested interests
must be sufficiently powerful. And clearly, this is not always going to be the
case. We should expect their power to vary across institutional settings, and
for reasons that are systematic and identifiable (and can be studied).
Some government agencies and programs, for example, are essentially
administrative, managerial, or informational in mission and unlikely to
generate deep-pocket vested interests of real political consequence. Others
may have constituencies—the poor, the unemployed—that are not well
enough organized to wield much political clout on their own. And so on. So
if we look across the full spectrum of government, there will be some
agencies and programs—especially those that are smaller and less socially
consequential—that are much more vulnerable than others as targets of
reorganization or even elimination when reformers see the need. Vested
interests are not all-powerful, then, and indeed, are sometimes weak. Their
power is a variable that needs to be studied and explained.
That said, political scientists have already generated plenty of evidence
that, for institutions of size and financial consequence, the vested interests
often are powerful enough to stand in the way of genuine reform—not
forever, but for a long time.
One reason is that, in most realms of public
policy, the vested interests include business firms that—like the insurance
and pharmaceutical companies, defense contractors, and agribusinesses—
profit greatly from their respective policy systems, are heavily dependent
on them, have vast resources and strong incentives for getting involved in
politics (through lobbying and elections), are extremely well informed
about the intricacies of policy, and are repeat players with long time
horizons. As political scientists have long recognized, the concentrated
benefits that these groups receive from government institutions, together
with their relatively small numbers and all the political advantages I have
just listed, allow them to overcome their collective action problems, fashion
potent political organizations and coalitions—and defend their institu-
tions from change.
Business firms are the most studied of vested interests. But other vested
interests are important too. Public employees have vested interests in their
jobs, and thus in public spending, taxing, and programs. Although they are
See especially Baumgartner and Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics; and James L. True,
Bryan D. Jones, and Frank R. Baumgartner, “Punctuated-Equilibrium Theory: Explaining Stability and
Change in Public Policymaking,”in Paul A. Sabatier, ed., Theories of the Policy Process (Boulder, CO:
Westview Press, 2007), 155–188. See also the classic works on interest groups cited earlier.
See Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); and Wilson, Bureaucracy.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 293
a large, diffuse group, they have (in great measure) overcome their collec-
tive action problems in all developed nations to form public sector unions
and bring their interests to bear quite powerfully in politics. In the United
States, these unions organize more than eight million public workers
nationwide; they are bulwarks of the Democratic Party and huge contrib-
utors to political campaigns (in both money and manpower); they have
well-funded lobbying organizations; and they are extremely active in
politics on matters ranging from pension reform to budgets and taxes to
labor law. Political scientists have rarely studied public sector unions. And
they have rarely recognized that, just as business firms often have vested
interests in protecting the institutional status quo, so do public sector
Ordinarily, the most diffuse vested interests are mass constituencies.
For obvious reasons, they have the greatest problems organizing for politi-
cal action—and, unlike unions, they have largely been unable to resolve
them. Even so, as Pierson, Campbell, and others have shown, these
constituencies—driven by incentives to resist cutbacks to “their”pro-
grams—can sometimes prove politically potent.
They vote. In addition,
certain groups of beneficiaries are powerfully represented by organized
interest groups—as senior citizens are by AARP, for example, in battles
over retrenchments to Social Security.
Now consider the reform side of the equation. For reformers, effective
political action tends to be much more difficult than it is for vested
interests. They often have no financial stake in bringing institutional
change but simply believe in pushing for good policy and good govern-
ment. Do-gooders, think tank scholars, academics, issue networks, and
activists are ordinarily no match for vested interests. They typically lack the
financial incentives to generate the same level of political power, particu-
larly the kind of power that can affect the votes and electoral security of
mainstream politicians. They may have “good ideas,”and, as political
scientists have shown, during times of economic hardship or widespread
public concern, they may be able to get enough popular and politician
support to make reform a reality. The stars may line up. But when they are
seeking major change and facing well-organized vested interests with deep
See DiSalvo, Government against Itself; Moe, Special Interest; Terry M. Moe, “Political Control and the
Power of the Agent,”Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 22 (April 2006): 1–29; and Sarah F.
Anzia, Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups (Chicago, IL: University of
See Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State?; Pierson, “When Effect Becomes Cause”; and Campbell, How
Policies Make Citizens.
294 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
material stakes in the status quo, the playing field is steeply sloped against
Sometimes, we should note, there are well-organized, influential groups
on the reform side for whom the benefits of reform would be quite
concentrated—business organizations, for example, that would get rid of
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if they could.
But even for these otherwise powerful groups, the stars rarely line up. For
there is yet another, profoundly consequential reason that the protectors of
existing institutions have a big advantage: the checks and balances built
into the policymaking process stack the deck in their favor—and against
reformers. This is especially true in the United States, given our system of
“separated institutions sharing powers.”But it is also true, to a lesser
extent, in most other countries as well—as a result of bicameralism,
federalism, corporatist arrangements, and other governing structures in
which vetoes can be wielded in defense of the status quo.
In the United States, any reform bill needs to survive a minefield of
multiple veto points, making passage on a contentious matter extremely
difficult. Reformers need to win victories at each and every step along the
way, while opponents need to succeed at just one veto point in order to win.
The political system is literally designed to make blocking far easier than
taking positive action. The advantage always goes to the side that wants to
keep things as they are—which is precisely what the vested interests want
to do. They do not need to be enormously powerful. They just need to be
powerful enough to block. This is why OSHA and its mandates still exist
after decades of business opposition. The private sector labor unions,
despite their precipitous drop in membership and power over the years,
have still been powerful enough to block.
Vested Interests and the Stability of Change
Vested interests help us understand why major change is so rare, what
resistance must be overcome if it is to occur—and why reform tends to be
weak and incremental and leave the core structures of the status quo intact,
even if its performance is quite inadequate. Vested interests also help us
For classic works on the special conditions, windows of opportunity, ideas, and entrepreneurs that make
reform possible, see Martha Derthick and Paul J. Quirk, The Politics of Deregulation (Washington, DC:
Brookings Institution, 1985); and Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies.
On veto points in comparative perspective, see George Tsebelis, Veto Players: How Political Institutions
Work. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Ellen Immergut, Health Politics: Interests
and Institutions in Western Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
On the status quo bias of American politics, see, for example, Frank R. Baumgartner, Jeffrey M. Berry,
Marie Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, and Beth L. Leech, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses,
and Why (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 295
understand incremental change itself, because its content and direction, as
well as what it actually adds up to over long stretches of time, are con-
strained by vested interest power and just another institutional expression
of its exercise.
But what if major change actually does occur? What if the stars line up at
a special moment in political time, and reformers succeed in passing a
general-interest enactment that overturns an existing institutional regime
and creates a new regime intended to better serve the public? If such a
political victory is to have lasting impact, the new system it creates must
become established, resilient, and stable. The question is, will that actually
happen—and what can vested interests tell us about that?
Part of the answer is that new institutions generate new vested interests
that will help protect and stabilize them. Yet this is not the whole story, and
we should not expect it to be. For the groups with vested interests in the old
status quo will still exist; and if they remain powerful, they are likely to
continue the fight—in legislatures, in the implementation process, in
elections, wherever they can—in an effort to disable the reforms and
even bring them down. Whether major reforms ultimately succeed,
then, depends on exactly how these reforms shape their own politics
and, in particular, how they shape the full constellation of vested interests:
the old as well as the new.
This is terrain compellingly covered by Eric Patashnik in his superb
book Reforms at Risk. In it, he takes a detailed look across diverse realms of
policy at what happened in the years after major, general-interest reforms
had been achieved. The starting point of any effort to understand these
things, he argues, is recognizing that, at least in the short run, the reformers
have not really won. He goes on to show that, over the long run, “the
sustainability of reforms turns on the reconfiguration of political dynam-
ics. Concentrated interests must be prevented from reasserting them-
selves . . . [T]he most resilient reforms upset inherited coalitional
patterns and stimulate the emergence of new vested interests and political
Airline deregulation is an example of the latter, and thus of successful
reform. For decades beginning in the late 1930s, the airline companies
(and their unions) benefited enormously from a regulatory system that
strictly determined rates and routes and eliminated competition and new
entry. These vested interests battled against the push for deregulation. But
once reformers achieved victory and a new system took hold, in the late
Patashnik, Reforms at Risk,3–4. The examples in the text that follow, of airline deregulation and tax
reform, are taken from Patashnik’s analysis.
296 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
1970s and early 1980s, the airlines invested heavily in new forms of
organization and operation, major airlines went out of business, and
many new airlines entered the industry. Over time, a new and protective
constellation of vested interests emerged—including some of the very same
companies, now with new interests aligned with the new system. A sup-
portive reconfiguration of power, interests, and politics had taken place,
and there would be no going back to the old regime. For some 30 years
now, the new system has proved durable and resilient, protected by its new
Airline deregulation is a poster child of reformist success. But it is not
necessarily representative. For if groups with vested interests in the old
institutions remain powerful, and if their interests remain the same, then
the new reforms are vulnerable and may not endure. The 1986 Tax Reform
Act, for example, was a tremendous achievement in simplifying the tax
code and eliminating hundreds of loopholes for special interests. But
groups that benefited from those loopholes remained powerful, and in
later years, the tax code became loaded with special-interest loopholes
again. The law had changed, but the old power structure had not—and
after a temporary setback, it simply reasserted itself.
The analytic value of vested interests, then, goes beyond their role in
stabilizing institutions, preventing major reform, and constraining the
path of incremental change. They also have a key role to play in explaining
what change should look like if major reform actually does occur. For it is
the postreform constellation of vested interests, a reconfiguration of the
new and the old, that plays a big part in determining whether the new
reforms will survive and succeed—or be weakened and eviscerated.
Note, moreover, the nuances that are involved here. From the outset,
vested interests are the enemies of change and a key source of resistance
that reformers must overcome to achieve victory. This is a role we are quite
familiar with. But once major change has occurred, that change becomes
the new status quo—and the old vested interests, if they remain its enemies,
now become the proponents of change. In the meantime, the reformers are
now in the position of defending the status quo—and the key to their
success rests with the new vested interests that their reform will create.
With the shift in policy, then, the new vested interests become the friends of
reform, essential to its durability.
Vested Interests as Drivers of Change
Finally, we need to recognize that vested interests are not always in the
position of simply reacting to what reformers do. They may sometimes take
action, quite on their own, to bring change—even very radical change—to
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 297
“their own”institutions. Upon reflection, this should not be so surprising.
Like any other groups, they would surely be happy to pursue institutional
change if it promised to be highly beneficial—to them—and most impor-
tant, if it did not really involve any downside risk. These opportunities, I
submit, do not arise all that often in real-world politics. But occasionally
This is most likely to happen when, as a result of disruptive develop-
ments in their environments, institutions get increasingly out of sync with
their contexts and less capable of generating benefits. In such cases of
institutional drift, vested interests may seek changes designed to stop the
hemorrhaging and boost their rewards—thus becoming reformers (albeit,
of course, in their own best interests).
Private sector unions, for example, have a vested interest in the National
Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and its structure of labor law, which were
set up during the New Deal to promote collective bargaining and facilitate
the organization of unions. The unions have long had incentives to protect
this institutional system from attacks by business, and they have done that:
it has been frozen in place for more than 65 years.
Yet the unions are also
dissatisfied. Globalization, structural changes in the economy, growing
managerial hostility, technological innovation, and other developments
have led to steep declines in union membership since the late 1950s—and
the unions have sorely wanted to change “their”system in ways that would
give them greater leverage in organizing workers.
Note, however, that the shoe is now on the other foot: the unions, as
vested interests, are in the position of wanting to reform the institution—
and they must overcome the opposition of a powerful business community,
which, while no fan of the NLRB, has benefited from institutional drift and
now simply needs to block. The unions have long recognized as much. But
they have also recognized that, should they try for reform and fail, the
institutional status quo would simply remain in place—so there has been
little downside risk to dissuade them from going for it.
And so they have. When unified Democratic control has given them
windows of opportunity, they have pushed Congress to overturn state
Their only failure, when playing defense, was in 1947, when a Republican Congress passed the Taft-
Hartley Act (which, among other things, allowed to states to adopt right-to-work laws) over President Harry
S Truman’s veto. Since then, there have been no major legislative changes. See, for example, Nelson
Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
On these matters, and on the unions’various efforts to seek institutional change, which I discuss later, see,
for example, Lichtenstein, State of the Union; see also Jake Rosenfeld, What Unions No Longer Do
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Taylor E. Dark, The Unions and the Democrats
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).
298 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
right-to-work laws, to impose harsher penalties on business for unfair
labor practices, to prohibit the hiring of replacement workers in strike
situations, and, most recently (in 2009) and most aggressively, to adopt
“card check”procedures that would have dramatically improved their
ability to organize workers. The result in all cases was the same: their
campaigns went down to defeat, as business and its allies were ultimately
able to block.
The lesson, however, is that the unions did act as genuine reformers.
They were (and are) vested interests, but they also sought to bring institu-
tional change—and in so doing, to adapt the nation’s formal system of
labor law to a new environment, to bring its performance back into line
with the original purpose of promoting union membership, and thus to
generate many more benefits for unions than it currently is.
APPLYING THE THEORY: AMERICAN EDUCATION REFORM
There is much more ground to be covered in making vested interests more
central to the theory of institutional stability and change. But I will leave
that to the future. For now, having set out some of the basic building
blocks, I think it is helpful to put these elements to use in exploring an
important empirical case: the efforts of reformers to bring change to
America’s system of public education.
By moving from the abstract to the concrete, I aim to illustrate how the
theory shapes our understanding of actual institutions and their political
dynamics. What are the vested interests in this case? What are their sources
of power, and how have they used it to oppose reformist efforts to bring
change to “their”education system? How successful have they been—and
what has change actually looked like?
A Troubled System in Need of Reform
American education reform is a long-running saga. It began with full force
in 1983, when A Nation at Risk warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity”in
America’s public schools and made the case for fundamental reform. The
Although I cannot pursue it here, it is reasonable to suggest that this out-of-sync problem is especially
likely to arise for institutions—such as the military—where technology is ever relevant yet constantly
changing, and where the stakes of not adapting (losing a war) are enormous and of great salience to
higher-level authorities. Thus, as Wilson recounts in his classic work Bureaucracy, the U.S. Army has
aggressively protected its own vested interests in autonomy (and budgets and the like) and engaged in
constant turf wars with the navy and the air force, but it has also been proactive in driving organizational
and doctrinal changes within its own institution, so that it is not just equipped to fight World War II (or
Vietnam) over and over again. These changes, Wilson shows, have been parochial, selective, and suboptimal
from the standpoint of the nation as a whole. But the army has not just stood still. It has sought to change
itself—in its own best interests.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 299
nation’s policymakers were roused to action, and they unleashed a torrent
of reforms that, from the mid-1980s to the present day, have brought
countless changes to the laws and programs that govern the education
system, as well as untold billions of extra dollars.
Yet there is much less here than meets the eye. Indeed, when
Arne Duncan took office as President Obama’s secretary of education
in 2009, he spoke out forcefully about the desperate challenge he faced.
“It’s obvious the system’s broken. Let’sadmitit’s broken, let’sadmitit’s
dysfunctional, and let’s do something dramatically different, and let’sdo
it now. But don’t just tinker about the edges. Don’t just play with it. Let’s
fix the thing.”
After a quarter century of perpetual education reform, then, Duncan
faced precisely the same challenge that reformers of the 1980s had
been grappling with. The more things changed, the more they stayed
the same. As Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli recently observed, “To
anyone concerned with the state of America’s schools, one of the more
alarming experiences of the past few decades has been seeing waves of
important reforms and promising innovations crash on the rocks of
So why have some 30 years of reform met with such meager success?
Why has the system been so stable despite all the pressures for change? The
answers have a lot to do with vested interests.
Political Science and the Study of American Education Reform
Let me first offer a brief account of how political scientists have studied
American education reform thus far. Two bodies of scholarly work are
most relevant. One is on urban education reform. The other is on the No
Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. In both, the focus is very much on the
reformers who try to bring change. The vested interests that regularly
resist their efforts, and are profound forces for stability, are barely
Studies of urban education reform examine the efforts of mayors and
other civic leaders in large American cities to turn around their troubled
Quoted in Gilbert Cruz, “CanArneDuncan(and$5Billion)FixAmerica’sSchools?,”Time,14
Chester E. Finn and Michael J. Petrilli, “The Failures of U.S. Governance in Education Today,”in Paul
Manna and Patrick McGuinn, eds., Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC:
Brookings Institution Press, 2013), 21–35. Quote is from p.21.
Perhaps the most cited work on American education reform is David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering
toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995). But
its approach is historical and education centered; it barely deals with issues of power, interests, and the
larger political process, and it offers no political theory of stability and change.
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public school systems.
The political contexts are varied and highly
complex, with diverse casts of characters, surges of events, and fluctuating
advances and setbacks. The most influential theoretical argument in this
literature is that “civic capacity”is the key to productive change.
capacity is about various sectors of the community coming together in an
effort to solve a major problem . . . When a wide alliance develops enough of
a common understanding to work together in concert to reform urban
education, civic capacity has been activated.”
The political challenge
reformers face, aside from overcoming their own separate interests to
forge a public-spirited coalition, is that education decisions are normally
made within a policy subsystem controlled by insiders with a stake in
existing arrangements. “Civic capacity involves mobilization by a broader
array of community interests to remove policy-making authority from
subperforming policy subsystems.”
This framework would seem to be a setup for a balanced program of
theory and research—one that tells us, in depth, not only about the re-
formers but also about the vested interests they are up against. Indeed, the
vested interest component is informed by a seminal contribution early on
by Wilbur Rich, who, in Black Mayors and School Politics, pointed to the
entrenched power of the “public school cartel . . . a coalition of professional
school administrators, school activists, and union leaders who maintain
See, for example, Clarence N. Stone, Jeffrey R. Henig, Bryan D. Jones, and Carol Pierannunzi, Building
Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001);
Jeffrey R. Henig, Richard C. Hula, Marion Orr, and Desiree S. Pedescleaux, The Color of School Reform:
Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001);
Wilbur C. Rich, Black Mayors and School Politics: The Failure of Reform in Detroit, Gary, and Newark
(New York: Garland, 1996); Marion Orr, Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore,
1986–1998 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999); Joseph P. Viteritti, ed., When Mayors Take
Charge: School Governance in the City (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009); Jeffrey R.
Henig and Wilbur C. Rich, eds., Mayors in the Middle: Politics, Race, and Mayoral Control of Urban
Schools (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); and Kenneth K. Wong, Francis X. Shen,
Dorothea Anagnostopoulos, and Stacey Rutledge, The Education Mayor: Improving America’s Schools,
2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007).
The concept of civic capacity is rooted in the larger theory of urban regimes, which arguably has long been
the dominant theory in the study of urban politics. Regime theory emphasizes the dependence of govern-
ment on private actors, especially business, and the need for cooperative, cross-sectoral coalitions, perhaps
involving many key players, if governing is to be effective and productive reform achieved. Regimes are often
difficult to identify, and what the relevant regime is (or seems to be) may vary from city to city and from
policy area to policy area, as well as over time. Partly for these reasons, the ambiguity of the regime concept
has provoked much debate. For overviews, see, for example, Karen Mossberger and Gerry Stoker, “The
Evolution of Urban Regime Theory: The Challenge of Conceptualization,”Urban Affairs Review 36
(July 2001): 810–835; and Clarence N. Stone, “Looking Back to Look Forward: Reflections on Urban
Regime Analysis,”Urban Affairs Review 40 (January 2005): 309–341. In education, the regime may
include public officials, business leaders, civic leaders, parents, administrators, teachers, and more. See, for
example, Stone et al., Building Civic Capacity; and Henig et al., The Color of School Reform.
Stone et al., Building Civic Capacity, 4; see also Henig et al., The Color of School Reform.
Stone et al., Building Civic Capacity,7.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 301
control of school policy to promote the interests of its members.”
members have vested interests in protecting the status quo, he says, and
their entrenched power is the key to understanding why reformers tend to
But the literature has not followed through on Rich’s insight. While his
argument is often cited, and vested interests recognized, the scholarly focus
is on the other side of the equation: on the complex activities of reformers,
their multifaceted efforts to build coalitions, their incremental successes
and many defeats, and the broader potential for good government if only
the disparate civic players could be brought together. We learn a lot
empirically about the reformers. But there is no comparable effort to study
and understand the vested interests that oppose them and that regularly
weaken, distort, or sidetrack major change. There is also little attempt to
take advantage of the monumentally important fact that, however diverse
and varied the reformist contingent may be from city to city, the vested
interests are very much the same everywhere—a sameness that ought to
provide fertile ground for theory and research.
The second political science literature studies NCLB, legislation passed
by Congress in 2001 that imposed a national system of accountability on
the states and school districts. NCLB is the single greatest victory by
reformers during the modern era and a watershed event—which is pre-
cisely why researchers have chosen to study it.
This literature chronicles in finely grained detail the political struggles
that evolved over a decade or two and culminated in the adoption
of NCLB. (More recently, there is research as well on its subsequent
Rich, Black Mayors and School Politics,5.
The exception is that this literature—which is heavily focused on racial issues and racial politics—does
explore the resistance to change that arises because many jobs in urban school districts are held by
minorities, and groups representing minorities (civil rights groups, churches) often act to protect these
vested job interests. This aspect of the literature is important, and it is a necessary part of the larger study of
vested interests that I am calling for here. But the theoretical focus in this body of work is not on vested
interests per se, and vested-interest representatives of profound importance—the teachers unions and the
school districts—are not singled out for in-depth study, analysis, or theory building.
See Patrick McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006); Elizabeth DeBray, Politics, Ideology, and Education:
Federal Policy during the Clinton and Bush Administrations (New York: Teachers College Press,
2006); Paul Manna, School’s In: Federalism and the National Education Agenda (Washington, DC:
Georgetown University Press, 2006); Jesse Rhodes, An Education in Politics: The Origins and Evolution
of No Child Left Behind (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); Carl F. Kaestle and Alyssa E.
Lodewick, eds., To Educate a Nation: Federal and National Strategies of School Reform (Lawrence:
University Press of Kansas, 2007); Kevin R. Kosar, Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education
Standards (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005); Lawrence McAndrews, The Era of Education: The
Presidents and the Schools, 1965–2001 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); and Lee Anderson,
Congress and the Classroom: From the Cold War to “No Child Left Behind”(University Park: Pennsylvania
State University Press, 2007).
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) Some of this work makes no attempt to be theoretical.
But some of it does, offering theories to account for the reformers’NCLB
breakthrough and, more generally, to provide an analytic basis for under-
standing the politics of educational change and stability.
These are laudable efforts. But they fall prey to the inherent dangers of
generalizing from a unique event. NCLB is not at all indicative of how the
politics of education normally plays out. I will not wade through the
details here. But the essence of what happened is that numerous political
stars lined up just right, at one moment in time, to yield a rare critical
juncture in the national politics of education—resulting in a landmark
piece of legislation that, at any other moment in time, would not have
This political constellation was entirely unrepresentative. So too was the
broader political process that gave rise to it, in large part because NCLB
was a product of national politics—whereas, by law and tradition, the
public schools are governed mainly by the states, which, in turn, delegate
much authority to school districts. Most decisions about education policy,
organization, and reform are made at these lower levels. And it is their
politics and power structures, not those at the national level, that are most
critical for understanding the educational status quo, its resilience, and the
prospects for changing it.
At the state and local levels, education’s vested interests are big fish in
small ponds. In national politics, their advantages are less compelling. The
field is far more crowded with diverse interest groups and policy actors,
from business groups to advocates for the disadvantaged to think tanks to
philanthropists; there is more competition and greater need to compro-
mise; politicians have more diverse constituencies; and media attention
can lead to vast expansions in the scope of conflict (and trouble for vested
NCLB is a worthy topic of study. But the theoretical perspectives
emerging from this literature are more a reflection of the peculiarities of
NCLB and its national politics than the broader dynamics of American
education generally. Invariably, these studies describe a fractious brand of
Paul Manna, Collision Course: Federal Education Policy Meets State and Local Realities (Washington,
DC: CQ Press, 2011); and David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal
Regulation Fix the Schools? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
See, for example, McGuinn, No Child Left Behind; DeBray, Politics,Ideology, and Education; and
Rhodes, An Education in Politics. See also Elizabeth DeBray-Pelot and Patrick McGuinn, “The New
Politics of Education: Analyzing the Federal Education Policy Landscape in the Post-NCLB Era,”Educa-
tional Policy 23 (January 2009): 15–42.
For a more extensive treatment of education politics at the local, state, and national levels, see Moe,
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 303
pluralist politics filled with diverse, competing groups and institutions.
They pay no special attention to vested interests, which they submerge
without distinction in a vast horde of policy activists. Their attention is
riveted on the political entrepreneurs—and their ideas, strategies, and
coalitions in pursuit of change.
Vested Interests in Education
Vested interests are fundamental to an understanding of institutional
stability and change, and their analytic value extends across all policy
realms, including public education. It is tempting to think that the public
schools must be different somehow. Their purpose, after all, is to educate
children. So it might seem that everyone would want what is best for kids
and would agree to change the system, if need be, in order to make sure it is
But this is a Pollyannaish view that has little to do with reality. The
public schools are government agencies, and the logic of vested interests
applies just as much to them as it does to all the other institutions of
government. The schools are not special. And this simple fact is a very
helpful thing to know because it means they can be understood in exactly
the same way—via the same theory—that the rest of government is
The public school system gives rise to various kinds of vested interests.
The most obvious are those of parents (and children), who are the schools’
clientele. But they make up a large, diffuse constituency that—hobbled by
collective action problems—is not organized to take forceful political action
(except locally in some suburbs).
Other vested interests, however, are well organized and politically
powerful: most notably, the teachers unions and the school districts.
As I have argued and sought to document at length in my own work,
particularly in Special Interest, the teachers unions are pivotal to an
explanation of why American education reform has proved so difficult.
And although the school districts have rarely been studied as political
actors in their own right, they too are vested interests of major consequence
See, for example, Charlene K. Haar, The Politics of the PTA (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2002).
These are the most important vested interests in American education, but there are others that an
expanded analysis would pay attention to. Notably, as I mentioned earlier, because many district jobs are
held by minorities who value them highly as avenues into the middle class, employee job interests are not
just represented by teachers’unions. They are also represented by civil rights groups, churches, and other
community groups—which sometimes actively oppose reforms in order to protect those jobs. See, for
example, Henig et al., The Color of School Reform; Henig and Rich, Mayors in the Middle; and Orr, Black
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that have long resisted major change. Both need to be brought to the center
of scholarly attention—and to the center of theory.
The American public school system currently employs more than three
million teachers, all of whom have vested interests in their jobs. Prior to
1960, these vested interests found little expression. Teachers were
an atomized and politically weak constituency, not unlike children and
parents. That changed dramatically, however, when the states adopted new
collective bargaining laws for public employees during the 1960s
and 1970s, setting off an explosion of union organizing. By the early
1980s, the vast majority of teachers belonged to unions—the National
Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and their
state and local affiliates—and collective bargaining became the norm
(outside the South). So did pervasive union involvement in politics at all
levels of government. The unions have been an entrenched power in
American education ever since.
The teachers unions protect and promote the job interests of their
members. These job interests are the reasons teachers join unions; they
are the basis on which union leaders are evaluated (and thrown out of
office); and they are the foundation of union survival and well-being. They
need to be at the heart of any theory that aims to understand how the
unions behave in politics and collective bargaining.
In these realms, union leaders can be expected to pursue policies—and,
empirically, there is ample evidence they do pursue policies—that enhance
teacher job security, increase wages and benefits, impose restrictive
work rules on management, increase spending and taxes, increase teacher
employment, reduce job-related uncertainties, and in countless other ways
protect or advance the job interests of their members. These job interests,
assessed on purely objective grounds, are simply not the same as the interests
of children or the requirements of effective education. Indeed, they often
come into conflict with them. This conflict is not what the teachers unions
intend, but it is unavoidable because of the misalignment of interests.
The two great education reform movements of the modern era,
the movements for accountability and for school choice, are attempts to
I should point out that, while Special Interest and the current article put the emphasis on vested interests,
the broader theoretical argument about understanding the politics of American education in terms of power
and self-interest traces its lineage to John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s
Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1990).
For evidence on union membership over time, see Moe, Special Interest, chapter 2.
For evidence, analysis, and discussion of teacher and union interests, see Moe, Special Interest,chapters1–3.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 305
transform the traditional structure of the American education system—and
the changes they pursue are threatening to the unions’vested interests.
Accountability seeks to put the spotlight on teacher performance, provide
rigorous evaluations, generate pressure for improvement, link pay to per-
formance, and move low-performing teachers out of the classroom—all of
which, to the unions, are threatening departures from a traditional system in
which performance was never seriously evaluated and all jobs were secure.
School choice is perhaps even more threatening. For when families are
allowed to leave the regular public schools for new options—charter schools
or (through vouchers or tax credits) private schools—the regular public
schools lose kids and money, and union members lose jobs. Preventing the
loss of jobs is the unions’number-one priority.
This tension between education reform and the unions’vested interests is
precisely what we should expect on theoretical grounds. Throughout Amer-
ican government, regardless of the realm of public policy, vested interests see
major reform efforts as threatening. The same is true in education. The only
difference is that the key vested interests happen to be unions rather than
business firms. To recognize as much is not to be “antiunion”or “conserva-
tive.”It is simply to recognize the reality of the situation. The teachers unions
are vested interests, they are threatened by serious efforts to bring account-
ability and choice to American education, and, that being so, they have
strong incentives—just as vested interests throughout the rest of govern-
ment do—to marshal their political power to oppose reform.
They are well positioned to do that. They have millions of members—
currently more than four million, including retirees and nonteaching
employees. They have deep financial pockets for campaign contributions
to candidates and parties (almost all of it going to Democrats), as well as
ballot measures, and they are among the very top contributors compared
with interest groups of all types, not just education groups (which they
dwarf in political spending). They have well-educated activists manning
the trenches—ringing doorbells, making phone calls—in virtually every
political district in the country. They have lobbying organizations in every
state capital and Washington, DC. They can orchestrate media campaigns
anytime they want, on any topic or candidate. And they have the capacity to
disrupt the operation of schools (through strikes) and hinder the school-
level implementation of any reforms that actually get adopted.
For evidence on how the teachers’unions have approached choice and accountability reforms in politics,
see Moe, Special Interest, chapters 9–10.
See Moe, Special Interest, especially chapters 9–10. For specific evidence on the teachers’unions’
contributions to campaigns, parties, and ballot measures, see chapter 9, as well as the Web site of the
National Institute on Money in State Politics at http://www.followthemoney.org
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This array of resources gives the teachers unions a formidable basis for
wielding political power. Because they have the great fortune, moreover, to
be operating in a veto-filled political system that favors the status quo, their
effective power is magnified considerably—and along with it, their ability
to resist change through the politics of blocking.
The unions also benefit from another big advantage: collective bargain-
ing. In most school districts, officials do not have the authority to make
many crucial decisions about how their schools are organized. These
decisions—about teacher assignments to schools and classes, teacher eval-
uations, teacher pay, and so on—are made through union negotiations.
This means, most obviously, that the unions can use their power to get
favored provisions—seniority rules, for example—written into labor con-
tracts, and thus to shape the organization of schooling in the ways that
promote the job interests of teachers. But it also means that, if district
leaders try to bring organizational changes to the schools, the unions are in
a position to block—just as they are in the political system—when those
reforms threaten their job interests.
While much could be said to complete the picture, it should be clear that
the teachers unions are well endowed with powerful resources and vantage
points. All of it serves to protect the vested interests of teachers from
reformist change. And because this is so, all of it works more generally
to stabilize the system. The teachers unions, acting in defense of their own
vested interests, are powerful forces for stability in American education.
School districts are local governments, and their leaders have vested
interests at stake. Specifically, the officials who run the districts—school
board members, superintendents—have jobs rooted in these systems
that provide them with a flow of valuable benefits: income, power, career
advancement, prestige, patronage, and more.
Their ability to take
advantage of these benefits, in turn, depends on characteristics of the
districts themselves—characteristics that they have a vested interest in
protecting and enhancing.
The following are the most basic. Enrollments and funding: the more
students and money a district has, the greater the scope, importance, and
value of leader jobs and the more resources they have for developing
programs, building coalitions, and getting what they want. Autonomy:
See Moe, Special Interest, chapter 6.
Administrators in district bureaucracies also have vested interests (in their jobs), but I will focus here on
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 307
the freer local leaders are from constraints by higher levels of govern-
ment, the more they can exercise control and allocate resources as they
see fit. Harmony: the more district leaders can avoid conflict and garner
support, the greater their capacity to govern, succeed at their jobs, and
benefit from doing so.
Because of these vested interests, district leaders are generally inclined
to oppose major reforms (with exceptions, which I will discuss). Consider
school choice. To reformers and many parents, charter schools offer much-
needed options for families and healthy competition for the public schools.
But to district officials, charter schools create serious problems, for they
allow children and money to leave the regular district schools—reducing
district enrollments and funding, reducing district authority, and creating
stresses and conflicts as the public schools are forced to compete and cut
back. The consequences that most affect their own interests, then, are
deeply threatening—and however much families might want new options,
the districts have incentives to be opposed.
Accountability is threatening too. Its essence is that state and national
governments use their authority to impose a host of rules on the districts:
rules about testing, performance standards, teacher evaluation, conse-
quences if schools fail to measure up, and more. These rules severely limit
the autonomy of the districts, telling them what to do and how to do it—
which local leaders do not like. To make matters worse, because account-
ability spotlights the academic performance of districts and schools, it
puts significant new pressures on district leaders, lays bare their failings,
and threatens conflict with the public, parents, teachers, and journalists.
However much sense accountability may make organizationally, then, it
strikes hard at the vested interests of district leaders—and they have
incentives to be opposed.
These aspects of motivation have long been basic to any understanding of government and bureaucracy.
See, for example, Wilson, Bureaucracy; Anthony Downs, Inside Bureaucracy (Boston, MA: Little, Brown,
1967); and William A. Niskanen, Jr., Bureaucracy and Representative Government (Chicago, IL: Aldine,
Some of the more daring district leaders may find aspects of accountability useful in their efforts to
promote effective teaching or deal with their unions, but my point is that a serious system of top-
down accountability is a major violation of local autonomy and threatens local harmony, and there is
much for district leaders to oppose. For studies that reveal some of the massive difficulties and problems
involved in the local implementation of NCLB—but that focus more on capacity and organizational issues
rather than on local motivations to resist—see Manna, Collision Course; and Cohen and Moffitt, The Ordeal
of Equality. For an excellent study of district resistance to NCLB, including strategies for avoiding the
choice requirement, see William Howell, “Worcester: Thunderous Clouds, No Rain,”in Frederick Hess and
Chester Finn, eds., Leaving No Child Behind? Options for Kids in Failing Schools (New York: Palgrave
MacMillan, 2004), 239–261.
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Can the districts exercise real power in resisting these and other un-
wanted changes to the status quo? The answer is yes. They can draw upon
several important weapons.
One is quite obvious: they can use their own legal authority to prevent
reforms from taking root. If a state adopts a charter law, for example, and
puts chartering authority in the hands of districts, local leaders can simply
turn down all applications for new charter schools. Similarly, if a state
passes a reform allowing districts to devise pay-for-performance systems,
local leaders can simply decide not to do it.
They can also exercise power through the electoral connection. They
cannot come close to matching the unions in this regard.
intendents and school board members are well known in their communi-
ties, they are constantly interacting with local political groups, and what
they say can affect a candidate’s electoral prospects. State legislators are
wise to be in good standing with these local notables—and imposing
unwanted reforms is not the way to do that. Local leaders also gain clout
because school districts are typically among the largest employers in their
localities, and state politicians have electoral reason to care about the
districts’growth and development—and to preserve their jobs and
Finally, the districts have a bureaucratic source of power: they are the
ones that actually carry out education policy and are best informed about
operational details. As a result, higher-level governments face a classic
control problem if they try to impose reforms from above: the districts can
use their insider advantages to evade full compliance and subvert reform.
NCLB, for example, required that students in low-performing schools be
allowed to choose other, higher-performing schools instead—but many
districts simply claimed that these higher-performing schools were “full”
and could not accept new students. As a result, the act’s choice requirement
turned out to be a paper tiger, irrelevant on the ground.
As I have said, districts have almost never been studied as truly political actors, so exactly what the districts
do in reform politics to pursue their own interests, as well as how they do it, has not been well documented.
My own work focuses on teachers unions but includes the districts (much less centrally) in its analyses of the
politics of reform. See Moe, Special Interest, especially chapters 4, 9, and 10.
To compare the contributions of educational actors directly, see the Web site of the National Institute on
Money in State Politics at http://www.followthemoney.org
I do not mean to suggest that state legislators never go against the districts (or the unions), as they surely
do on occasion, only that the districts have various means of swaying these legislator and are political actors
in their own right.
Again, for a study of district resistance to NCLB, with special attention to its choice requirement, see
Howell, “Worcester: Thunderous Clouds, No Rain.”
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 309
Unions, Districts, and the Public School Cartel
Rich deserves great credit for his early focus on the “public school cartel”
and its key role in resisting change.
But unions and districts are very
different actors with very different motives and powers, and there is much
to be gained by not lumping them together. In comparing these two
players, the most general difference is that, while the teachers unions
can be counted on to oppose major reform because of their overriding
concern for jobs, the districts ultimately are more complicated. They have
vested interests in opposing reform, too. But there is also more to the story,
and it is of great theoretical import.
The additional element is that school board members (and mayors,
when relevant) are elected. To some extent, then, they must please a
constituency of voters and respond to pressures—amped up by account-
ability’s spotlight on performance—that may include demands for effective
schools and sensible reforms. Superintendents are susceptible to these
same pressures because they are appointed and fired by elected officials.
The upshot is that, because of elections, some district leaders may actually
support major reform rather than opposing it. And if they do, they will
likely find themselves battling their own unions.
The divergence is most striking in those (few) districts where mayors
run the school system. Mayors are constantly in the public eye; they have
larger, more diverse constituencies than school board members do; they
have far more resources for wielding power; and they may decide to make
their mark by reforming the local schools. It is no accident that the highest-
profile cases of districts fighting hard for reform have come in New York
City and Washington, DC. In both cities, reformist mayors appointed
reformist school chancellors (Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee) who were dedi-
cated to the pursuit of effective organization and launched all-out assaults
on restrictive work rules—leading, inevitably, to fierce struggles with their
Because of the electoral connection, then, vested interests have a more
nuanced effect on district leaders than on unions. In some districts at some
times, leaders may actually have incentives to transform the status quo.
Yet, important as this is, it is only likely to occur at the margins. The reform
battles in New York City and Washington, DC, received national attention,
Rich, Black Mayors and School Politics. See also Robert Maranto and Michael Q. McShane, President
Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Maranto and McShane employ the vested interest concept of the “educational industrial complex,”which is
very much like Rich’s“public school cartel.”
See Moe, Special Interest, chapter 7.
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and their school chancellors became nationally famous, for one reason: the
vast majority of district leaders do not behave that way.
Part of the explanation is that vested interests give them strong incen-
tives to resist change. But the other part is that the electoral connection
does not work very well. School board elections are often held off cycle, with
abysmally low turnout rates. Parents and citizens are poorly organized for
political action. And business and civic groups have multiple policy inter-
ests and rarely focus in a sustained way on education.
The clincher, however, is that the most active and influential of all
groups in local school board elections are the teachers unions themselves.
They have deep vested interests in public education and the strongest
possible incentives to leverage their resources to control these local
elections. Their success can be expected to vary across districts and
over time. But the advantages they bring to elections should allow
them to select many district leaders, influence many others, and help
ensure that local school boards include sympathizers who—in both policy
and collective bargaining—give special weight to job-based interests
and take a jaundiced view of reform. The evidence so far suggests as
Finally, even if there are occasional district leaders who, despite it all,
turn out to be champions of reform, their insurgency against the status quo
is likely to be fragile. Local district leaders do not stay in office very long:
they move on to higher office, they get term-limited out, or they get
targeted by opponents and tossed out of office—and their replacements
will almost surely not be as bold as they were. Indeed, in New York City, the
reformer Michael Bloomberg was replaced as mayor in 2014 by Bill de
Blasio: a staunch ally of the teachers union and an opponent of charter
schools and accountability—which means that virtually everything Bloom-
berg struggled for 12 years to achieve is at risk of being weakened or
See Moe, “Political Control and the Power of the Agent”; Moe, Special Interest, chapter 4; Moe, “Teachers
Unions and School Board Elections,”in William G. Howell, ed., Besieged: School Boards and the Future of
Education Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 254–287; Anzia, Timing and
Turnout; and Katharine O. Strunk and Jason A. Grissom, “Do Strong Unions Shape District Policies?
Collective Bargaining, Teacher Contract Restrictiveness, and the Political Power of Teachers Unions,”
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 32 (September 2010): 389–406.
Indeed, Washington, DC’s reformist mayor, Adrian Fenty, lost his reelection bid in late 2010—in part
because of strong union opposition—leading to Michelle Rhee’s departure as school chancellor in that city.
But Fenty’s replacement, Vincent Gray, chose not to reverse Rhee’s reforms. Even so, they remain vulnerable
to the next mayor.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 311
Vested Interests and Education Reform
Much more could obviously be said about unions and districts as political
actors. But my aim here is not to be comprehensive. It is to put the focus on
The American education system gives rise to vested interests—teachers
unions, school districts—that benefit from the status quo, are threatened
by reform, are well organized and powerful, and are advantaged by a
political system filled with veto points. Under normal conditions, then,
reformers will face staunch resistance in trying to bring change to the
system. The reformers themselves are a diverse lot, including business
groups, philanthropists (such as the Gates, Broad, and Walton founda-
tions), nonprofits (such as Teach for America and StudentsFirst), groups
representing the disadvantaged, think tanks, and more, depending on the
state, the time, and the occasion. The reformers are not without power. But
the vested interests are very powerful indeed—and in their attempts to
block, they have formidable political advantages.
Nothing in this logic implies that the status quo is static or the vested
interests all-powerful. It implies, rather, that major reform is very unlikely
—and that change should tend to occur incrementally, with little impact on
the system’s basic structure. Change should be a pale reflection of what
reformers intend. The evidence is overwhelming, in my view, that these
expectations are borne out by the modern era of American education
reform. The nation’s amorphous m
elange of reformers has met with a
modicum of success, if episodically and haphazardly, in moving the ball
downfield. But aside from their landmark victory in NCLB (which I will
discuss), the corpus of reform nationwide has been fragmented and inco-
It is no accident that, after 30 years of nonstop reform, the
nation’s leaders are still calling the system “broken”and “dysfunctional”
and demanding a genuine “fix.”Yes, there has been gradual change. But it
has not accumulated to anything substantial.
In recent years, there is a sense that reform has achieved liftoff. The pace
of reformist “victory”has picked up, and the vested interests—weakened by
the Great Recession (which reduced their money, staffing, and union
On education reformers and their activities, see the literatures cited earlier on urban education reform and
NCLB. See also Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 2012); for a detailed analysis of education philanthropists, see Sarah Reckhow, Follow the Money:
How Foundation Dollars Change School Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
A broad range of evidence is discussed and extensively documented in Moe, Special Interest. On the lack of
fundamental change, see also Frederick M. Hess, The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers
Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Others may contend, of
course, that change has actually been more consequential, but this is a debate that I cannot pursue in this
312 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
membership), as well as by a new reformist wing within the Democratic
Party—have been losing more battles and making more concessions.
There has been an adjustment in the balance of power, and changes
have occurred that would not have occurred before. Do these new develop-
ments fly in the face of the theory I have been outlining here? The answer is
that they do not. Indeed, the theory allows us to gain perspective on what
has been happening during these eventful years.
Consider school choice. Choice advocates have cheered loudly about
their recent victories: new voucher programs, for example, in Indiana and
Louisiana. They have also cheered because charter schools continue to gain
in popularity—boosted, for example, by President Obama’s signature reform
initiative, Race to the Top, as well as the high-profile movie Waiting for
Superman. The unions and the districts, now somewhat weaker than before,
have had to give some ground. But the biggerpicture is much more sobering.
The choice movement has been pushing for vouchers and tax credits since
the 1980s, yet as of 2014, these programs—almost all of which are tiny—still
allow only 300,000 children to attend private schools with government
assistance. Compared with the more than 50 million children in public
schools, this is a drop in the bucket. And what about charter schools? Based
on all the media attention they are getting, the impression is that they must
enroll half the children in the country. Yet, as of today, more than 20 years
after Minnesota passed the first charter bill in 1991, these schools enroll a
mere 5 percent of the nation’s public school children. In a handful of cities,
they are a major factor. But in almost all the 14,000-plus school districts in
the United States, they are absent or irrelevant.
These reformist developments within the Democratic Party are particularly important and troublesome
for the unions and the districts, as the Democrats have long been their staunch allies. In recent years, some
Democrats have rejected the alliance out of frustration with the failures of education reform for disadvan-
taged kids—whose interests they think their party should give first priority to—and they have begun
supporting accountability and choice reforms that the vested interests oppose. Obama and Duncan are
the most visible of these Democratic reformers, but the insurgency also involves major political groups
(notably, Democrats for Education Reform), philanthropists, and liberal opinion leaders. As I have written,
however, this movement is inherently limited in what it can achieve, because, as Democrats, these people
want to preserve the power of the unions—which is crucial to the electoral success of their party—and
address reform merely by winning specific battles and trying to persuade the unions to be more conciliatory.
Their movement is well suited to making incremental progress toward reform but entirely unsuited to
addressing the more fundamental problem of vested interest power. I should add, moreover, that most
Democrats are not reformers anyway, and embrace the traditional alliance. For a more detailed discussion,
see Moe, Special Interest, chapter 10; Moe, “Teachers Unions and the Politics of American Education
Reform: The Politics of Vested Interests,”in Jeffrey A. Jenkins and Sidney M. Milkis, eds., The Politics of
Major Policy Reform (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
See Moe, Special Interest, chapters 9 and 10. On charters, see the “dashboard”data compiled by the
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, accessed at http://dashboard.publiccharters.org/dashboard/
home, 16 January 2015. On voucher and tax credit programs, see the Friedman Foundation for Educational
Choice, The ABC’s of School Choice, 2014 ed., accessed at http://www.edchoice.org, 16 January 2015.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 313
The choice movement is filled with high-energy activists. It has wide-
spread support among conservatives, as well as among the poor and
minority parents who are the prime constituents of virtually every
choice-based reform. And the great majority of American parents, overall,
think they should have the right to choose their kids’schools. So why has
this movement achieved so little after so much time? A comprehensive
answer would be complicated, of course. But the theory outlined here
captures the core of the explanation: the teachers’unions and school
districts have found their vested interests egregiously threatened by school
choice, and they have used their power to oppose it. They have not been
able to stop it entirely. And in recent years, with the unions and districts
mired in difficult circumstances, reformers have made greater gains than
in the past. But greater is a relative term. The fact is, the vested interests
have been very successful over a very long period of years at stifling school
choice—and they are still stifling it.
For accountability, the details are different, but the themes are much the
same. Proponents are excited because big developments seem to be afoot.
competition among the states, carried out in 2009–2010, in which roughly
$5 billion was doled out to winning states (19 of them) based on reforms
they had either enacted or promised. In the years since, performance-
based evaluations of teachers—a key emphasis of Race to the Top—have
become the hot-button issue, and most states have passed laws requiring
that teachers be evaluated with some reference to performance. This is a
sharp departure from the past, and it is widely regarded as a breakthrough.
But again, what is the big picture? The big picture is that, throughout
the entire reform era, teachers have not been seriously evaluated at all. In
fact, 99 percent have routinely received satisfactory evaluations, and al-
most never have teachers been dismissed merely for poor performance.
Why did the nation have to wait a quarter century for even a modicum of
change on a problem so simple and obvious? The core of an explanation,
again, has to do with vested interests: the teachers unions are threatened by
performance-based evaluations, most districts do not want to be ham-
strung by top-down legislative restrictions (or the conflicts that go along
with negative evaluations), and both have used their power over the years
It is true and of genuine importance that reformers have “won”new laws
in many states calling for performance-based evaluations. But to reiterate
Patashnik’s warning: this does not mean that they have actually won. So
See Moe, Special Interest, chapters 6, 9, and 10.
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far, the requirements are little more than words on paper. The details
remain to be worked out in the trenches (often in collective bargaining)
over many years, and the unions and the districts are in the trenches, they
excel at trench warfare—and they remain powerful. We should expect the
unions and (most) districts to use their power to soften and weaken these
new evaluation systems and to minimize real change—and so far, that
appears to be precisely what is happening. Evidence on these systems’
actual operation to date reveals that, despite the (purportedly) rigorous
new criteria and procedures, almost all teachers are still getting satisfactory
evaluations, and almost no one is being dismissed for poor performance.
Performance-based evaluation, moreover, is the accountability move-
ment’s mountaintop of success. The rest of the landscape is littered with
disappointments. Of these, the biggest disappointment by orders of mag-
nitude is NCLB: the movement’s most spectacular political victory, and its
single greatest achievement in passing a coherent policy package intended
to transform the operation of the entire system of American education.
Here too—or perhaps I should say, here especially—Patashnik’s warning is
of the essence: the reformers had not actually won. Their struggle was just
Why? A major reason was that, while NCLB shaped the system’s
operation, it left the system itself intact—and the vested interests remained
as powerful as ever. Yes, they had lost a political battle. But as soon as the
ink was dry on the new law, they unleashed a counterattack (aided by
antitesting allies) that went on for years: challenging NCLB in the courts;
filling the air waves with complaints about over-testing, teaching to the
test, and flaws in the legislation; making opposition to test-
based accountability a litmus test for Democratic candidates; and more.
Before long, NCLB became a toxic brand, and many Democrats began
moving away from it. That alone could have spelled trouble. But there was
more: Republicans were abandoning ship too, for different reasons. In
2001, many Republicans had momentarily violated their commitment to
local control in order to support their own president’s signature legislation
—but over time (and with the Tea Party brewing), they closed ranks against
federal “overreach”and against NCLB.
Jenny Anderson, “Curious Grade for Teachers: Nearly All Pass,”New York Times, 30 March 2013; and
Stephen Sawchuk, “Teacher Ratings Still High Despite New Measures,”Education Week, 5 February 2013.
See Moe, Special Interest, chapters 9 and 10. For resistance by districts, see Manna, Collision Course; and
Howell, “Worcester: Thunderous Clouds, No Rain.”On the drift and failure to reauthorize NCLB, see, for
example, Barbara Michelman, “The Never-Ending Story of ESEA Reauthorization,”Policy Priorities 18
(Spring 2012); Alyson Klein, Stark Partisan Split Persists on ESEA Renewal, Education Week, 6 Au-
gust 2013; Michael Gerson, “The Quiet Overturn of No Child Left Behind,”Washington Post, 19 July 2012;
and Stephen Sawchuk, “Teachers, Unions, and the NCLB ‘Blueprint,’” Education Week, 15 March 2010.
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 315
As a matter of policy, the still-unfolding result has been bizarre even by
American standards. NCLB was scheduled to come up for reauthorization
in 2007, but as of 2014 it still has not been reauthorized. In the meantime,
Democrats and Republicans both heap criticisms on it—and although
everyone can agree it suffers from certain flaws (for example, the way it
measures performance) that are readily correctible, correcting them has
proved impossible because the two sides are otherwise so far apart. NCLB
has moved through time, then, as an act that everyone wants radically
overhauled or rescinded—yet it remains on the books, as is. President
Obama has reacted by choosing not to fully enforce the law’s provisions.
Instead, he has granted the states waivers on the condition that they pursue
certain reforms (among them, performance-based evaluations) that are
favored by the administration—but not necessarily part of NCLB at all. As
of now, the nation’s accountability policy is being made through presiden-
tial discretion, not through congressional legislation. NCLB remains on
the books, but it has been eviscerated. It is a zombie statue.
The vested interests were not alone in bringing NCLB down. But they
spearheaded the opposition, and they can look ahead with optimism. The
Obama administration is a reformist problem for them—but after 2016 it
will be gone. In the meantime, their Democratic allies in Congress favor a
new law that is much more flexible, with few consequences. And the
Republicans want to devolve authority to state and local governments—
which is just what the unions and districts want. Thus, if some sort of
compromise federal legislation does emerge, it should turn out to be
nonthreatening to the vested interests.
In sum, despite their watershed victory in the 2001 battle over NCLB,
what reformers have actually achieved after decades of trying are incre-
mental changes that have left the traditional structure of the public school
system intact. Progress has been made. Families have more choices now.
And performance is under the spotlight as never before. But throughout
the modern era, the teachers unions and the school districts have seen both
accountability and choice—quite rightly—as threats to their vested inter-
ests. And they have used their power to limit real change, ensuring that a
true transformation has never happened.
The last 30 years of American education reform bring to mind the oft-
quoted words of William Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying
On the Obama waivers, see, for example, Sam Dillon, “Obama to Waive Parts of No Child Left Behind,”
New York Times, 22 September 2011; Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein, “Obama Offers Waivers from Key
Provisions of NCLB,”Education Week, 27 September 2011; Alyson Klein, “As Waivers Take Hold, ESEA
Renewal Still Uncertain,”Education Week, 19 February 2013; and Klein, “Obama Administration Aloof as
Lawmakers Tangle over ESEA,”Education Week, 8 August 2013.
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nothing.”The outcome, of course, has not really been nothing. Incremental
progress has been made, and things have changed at the margins. But the
vested interests have remained powerful, the fundamentals of the system
have stayed the same—and despite all the consternation about perpetually
low performance, stability has prevailed.
There is nothing unique about American education. A theory rooted in
vested interests would prove just as relevant if applied to the nation’s
battles over health care, taxes, agriculture, or any other realm of public
policy, or to the institutional dynamics of any other country. The failures of
democracy in post-Soviet Russia, the resistance to welfare state retrench-
ment in the West, the derailing of revolution in Egypt, the persistence of
patronage and corruption in many developing nations (including their
education systems)—the list is endless, and vested interests are at the heart
of all of them.
In saying as much, I do not think I am saying anything very controver-
sial. That vested interests are substantively important has long been
reflected in the language of political science, as well as in some of its
most respected works, both classic and modern. The surprise is that
none of this has brought vested interests to the center of our theories.
Over the decades, what we used to call the “new institutionalism”has
proved a stunning success, giving rise to elaborate theories of institutional
stability and change. Yet these theories have had little to say about vested
interests, have accorded them no clear role, and—especially as change
has become the focus of scholarly attention, and stability a secondary
concern—have submerged them in a complex array of “relevant factors”
that disguises their distinctive analytic value.
This is a value that scholars can put to great use. On purely objective
grounds, the concept of vested interest is a remarkably powerful tool for
theory building. It captures phenomena that are universal across all politi-
cal institutions, arise inevitably from the institutions’very existence and
operation, and have profound consequences for political motivations, the
exercise of political power, and the dynamics of institutions over time. At
My focus here has been on the last 30 years of education reform—but I should say that, looking ahead, I
think that the prospects for transformative change are actually much brighter: not because of reform
movements arising endogenously within the system but rather because of the exogenous shock of the
revolution in information technology, which is only beginning to show its disruptive effects. For more
detailed discussions, see Moe, Special Interest, chapter 10; and Moe and John E. Chubb, Liberating
Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass,
VESTED INTERESTS AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS | 317
the most basic level, vested interestshavealottotellusaboutwhy
institutions are so stable, and thus why major change is so rare—even in
cases in which the institutions are performing quite poorly. This is enor-
mously important. But they have a lot more to tell us than that. To revisit
Paul Pierson’s observation, stability and change are two sides of the same
coin—and as the ground we have covered here well shows, an analysis that
seeks to understand stability quickly sheds light on the determinants of
change. The forces that protect stability are precisely the same forces that
prevent change, must be overcome if change is to occur, constrain the
content and direction of change once it does occur, and weaken or bolster
its future durability, survival, and effectiveness.
The point is not that vested interests are somehow monolithic or all-
powerful, or even that they always oppose change; for as we have seen,
these are just stereotypes, and there is a great richness and variety here for
political scientists to study and explore. The point is simply that vested
interests are essential to our understanding of institutions—and because
they arise from institutions themselves, they are precisely the sorts of
predictable, enduring, everywhere-relevant regularities that provide an
eminently promising basis for theory. Our challenge, going forward, is
to see their analytic value for what it is and take advantage of it.
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