Tyranny by copycats

PHOTO: Jenni C, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

If you walk the halls of power long enough you start to realize how closely they resemble the halls of your high school. Here we find fragile egos, self-absorption and a profound desire for good grades without homework.

Our frustration with legislative bodies comes not from their wickedness, but from their mediocrity. So many people with talent (though sometimes not as much talent as they think) grappling endlessly over status and position. Once in a while significant legislative achievements are won, always in spite of the conditions that prevent most problems from being solved at all.

But why is it this way? Well, two seemingly unrelated stories recently gave me new perspective on this.

The first, an April 10 report from National Public Radio’s Tovia Smith, details a specific kind of college cheating: students buying original essays instead of writing them.

Colleges try to crack down on this practice, just the same as they do plagiarism and other academic malfeasance. Nevertheless, the practice endures, especially at schools where students can afford the premium prices for original work that’s hard to trace.

A representative for one of the “essay mills” justified their practice by saying that students are “time-poor,” and that using their products lets them focus on other activities that make them “well-rounded.” She also downplayed the importance of writing essays, saying that hiring people to write them instead showed a different kind of skill set.

It’s the sort of rationalization that makes sense on the surface. That is, until you consider the kind of vacuous, morally bankrupt outcome that it fosters. It’s playing the short game over the long game, taking the easy over the hard, but mostly it’s just wrong. It is a manipulative lie only worsened by the class barriers it requires to exist.

Then I saw another story. This one was an April 3 data-driven piece by Rob O’Dell of USA Today. He and his team analyzed legislation introduced in state legislatures all over the country, more than 100,000 bills in total. They then compared the bills to language produced by special interest groups, partisan think tanks and big industries.

The results show that more than 2,100 bills were principally copied from sample legislation put out by interest groups. Another 10,000 bills included significant portions of copied language. O’Dell explains that many other bills with different keywords and rephrased sections might have slipped past the data scans.

I’d argue these stories are related. In fact, O’Dell used the same process to discover his findings that teachers use to find students who crib essays from the internet.

Here we see that legislative bodies aren’t truly deliberating original ideas. For every elected official, five lobbyists wait in the halls to shape legislation moving through committees. They often complete their work long before the general public knows anything happened at all. But those lobbyists also possess the wherewithal to mark up the final legislation at midnight of the last day.

None of this is new. This happened in 1878 and 1955, too. But this practice becomes more relevant when so much money and day-to-day showboat politicking shape the outcome. It also saps the notion of a legislator being a lawmaker. Instead this system makes it possible, maybe even preferable, for an elected official to be a mindless button-pushing machine.

Just like essay-buying college students, they have more time for other pursuits. Raising money, for instance, or talking to groups of people who already agree with them. 

If you don’t think students should be able to buy essays instead of writing them, then we should discourage the practice of cribbing legislation from industry and interest groups, too. Or at least mandate disclosure of the source. If our elected government wants to enact the political agenda of Apple, Wal-Mart or PolyMet, those companies should appear in the bill’s name. The same goes for partisan think tanks that prioritize ideological goals over the everyday problems citizens actually face.

One trite suggestion would be to “elect better representatives.” But that’s a cop out. Believe it or not, many of these people are honestly trying to do what they can to help their constituents. Most representatives do exactly what they said they’d do, and vote how their supporters would want them to.

For them to do better we’d have to demand more of them. Not just of the “other” party, but also of our own. That’s on us.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 28, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Interesting take. I’ve been trying to understand who people are passionate about particular bills/issues but mostly seem indifferent to the poor performance of the Legislature overall. (Except perhaps for Common Cause and a few other NGOs focused on the processes of government.)

    The “omnibus” bill system, used and liked by both parties, seems particularly antithetical to democracy but very helpful to the lobbyists and legislative leadership. Of course it it also flagrantly unconstitutional but who cares….?

  2. Burgess Eberhardt says

    While I agree that legislation arising from some commercial interest is inimical to the public good, I am aware that much legislation deals with complex and arcane subjects. There is no way our elected representatives can possibly know enough about specific subjects to draft good laws; they have to, or ought to, rely on knowledgeable authorities to provide information and lobbyists can serve that function. Certainly it would be better if our rep’s did their own research but that might be too overwhelming, or in some cases beyond their ability.

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