February 24, 2004

Purge the PIRGs

The discussion of Ralph Nader online has produced an interesting eddy in its wake, namely an equally passionate attack on Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), which Nader played a role in founding.

I don’t actually map my feelings about PIRGs onto Nader, though their mutual connection doesn’t help me get warm and fuzzy about either of them. In many ways, I object more fundamentally to PIRGs. They’re a scam.

Like Jane Galt, I first reached that conclusion as a canvasser for a PIRG one summer in the early 1980s. I only lasted about three weeks before the toxic combination of viciously exploitative labor practices and a recognition of the organization’s total lack of concern for political commitment completely alienated me. If you pounded the pavement all evening but came in just shy of quota, you didn’t get paid at all for your work. The people running the canvassing operation had zero interest in the issues or the ideas: they were in manner or functioning little different than the boss of a sweatshop factory floor. Keep the money rolling in and send it along to the state organization: that was the sole priority. The spiel we were told to memorize was a frankly deceptive presentation of the organization and its activities. PIRGs have a long habit of parasitically attaching themselves to legislation and claiming credit for it—and only if they deem it something fuzzy and blandly liberal enough that it is likely to raise more money or garner good publicity. There’s no coherent agenda beyond that, and never has been.

My antipathy deepened when a PIRG came rolling into town at Wesleyan University, when I was an undergraduate, seeking an automatic fee attached to the tuition bill. The whole presentation was slimy both in content and style. First, they dangled an internship in front of student officers, and then they shifted abruptly to left-baiting and bullying when anyone (a class of people that most definitely included me at that point) asked why on earth a PIRG should get an automated chunk of money every year when no other student group had the privilege—a chunk of money which would be completely non-transparently spent, moreover. As a magnaminous gesture, they finally offered a system where you could come and get a refund of your PIRG money if you were willing to show up at a basement office during a one-day window once every academic year and ask for it. This is all standard for PIRGs then and now: they push for mandatory fees, and accept as a fall-back an opt-out.

It’s not just that PIRGs are sleazy in their fund-raising and opportunism. Reading Jane Galt’s essay, I wonder a bit at whether they haven’t played a subtle but important role over two decades in disillusioning young liberals and leftists and driving them rightward as a result.

Based on my own experience and the experience of people close to me, I’d say that liberal nonprofits in general are usually not what they seem on the outside, or at least, rarely apply their outward convictions to internal matters. They often have unfair, exploitative or even discriminatory labor practices. They’re often intensely hierarchical, non-democratic and non-transparent in their internal organization. But PIRGs are in a class of their own. At least with something like the ACLU or Amnesty International, whatever their internal cultures are like, they stand for something consistent politically and socially. PIRGs don’t even have that.