Public Interest Research Paper

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Scholars debate the question of the public interest somewhat less than they once did, but it remains an important issue. As is true of other central concepts, the passage of time does not always lead to an increase in acuity, although it does lead to changes in emphasis (Friedrich 1962, Lewin 1991). Much that might be considered under the rubric of the public interest, moreover, continues to be discussed in terms of associated ideas such as justice, responsibility, and community. This ambiguity complicates a topic that is itself elusive.

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1. What Is The Public Interest, Conceptually?

The issue of the public interest is best organized under four headings. First is the formal or conceptual question. This includes problems such as the meaning of public as opposed to private, self or common interest, and the meaning of interests as distinguished from other goods. ‘Public’ sometimes is taken as anything that is not private, so that regard for the public interest means any regard for interests or groups that are not strictly or exclusively one’s own (Lewin 1991). Less broadly, a public often is said to be those affected by private groups, in the sense that people who are neither labor nor management are affected by strikes. Such publics, moreover, sometimes are taken to refer to those potentially and not just actually affected as, say, any potential passenger might be inconvenienced by a strike of air traffic controllers.

(Someone can, therefore, have both a private and a public interest in the same matter, and ‘self’ interest need not be identical to private interest.) In this sense we are all members of many publics. Often, however, the public interest is taken to be what is in the interests of ‘all’ of us, presumably as citizens within some boundary, although the questions of scope and authority are often curiously undiscussed. There are not many publics in this view but, finally, one public (Friedrich 1962, Barth 1992). The public is the group that makes law. Of course, its interests may be the sum of those of the many affected publics into which it can be divided.

Many discussions of the ‘public’ in these terms have in mind economic matters, or the point of view of academic economics (Friedrich 1962). A public is seen as an affected or lawmaking group of individuals that seeks satisfaction in economically calculable terms. Publics want things that market failures cause them to receive inadequately. It is serving such publics that defines the responsibilities of professionals and of businesses ‘affected with the public interest.’ One strength of this conception is that since the 1950s it has brought to bear an increasingly sophisticated understanding of economically rational action, both strategic and straightforward.

There are, however, limits to this perspective. They are evident in the narrowness of the economic view of the public when it is compared to other notions of what is potentially common in common goods. For, what is common is not limited to what each independently and equally can use or enjoy, as we use markets. The common also can involve things of which we are only parts, sometimes equal or identical and sometimes not, as a face is common to its different parts or a team or family common to its members. The ties that characterize what is common, moreover, are not limited to what covers or blankets us universally, but include attaching, placing, fitting, ordering, attracting and other links integral to images of politics from Plato through Hegel. Practical and economically based notions of the public interest will, of course, often take these distinctions for granted, but deeper exploration of the concept of the public interest cannot.

Just as ‘public’ is often narrower than common, so too are ‘interests’ conceptually different from goods more broadly conceived. Discussions of the public interest often refer to Adam Smith and, therefore, to a view of what is good as what satisfies desire in the somewhat flat, calculable, and exchangeable manner of post-Hobbesian or Lockean bourgeois life. Interests are linked to what is merely interesting, not to goods as objects of passion, longing, pride or nobility or to the character and institutions that support and direct these. Public interests are what several of us happen to desire, or means to satisfaction that we generally want. Part of the conceptual task in understanding the public interest is to consider the different ways of experiencing goods so that we can grasp how interests are goods conceived in a limited manner that is linked to the premises of liberal individualism.

2. What Is The Public Interest, Substantively?

A second question about the public interest is what it is substantively. This issue involves both scope and content. Some scholars seek to limit questions of the public interest only to certain kinds of public goods. Others use it to stand for national goals, purposes or goods more comprehensively. In practice, too, speaking of the public interest generally differs from considering the public’s interest in assuring the provision to all of some specific good such as telephone service.

When the scope of the public interest is limited to economic concerns, so too is the content of what is said to comprise it; for some the public interest does not even include protecting rights. To limit the concept in this way risks confusion when ‘public interest’ retains its broad use in practice and even in theory; to use it broadly, however, seems to involve every question of human purpose and to require some other concept to take the place of the idea used narrowly.

Just as our understanding of the public interest conceived narrowly has benefited from developments in economic understanding, so too has substantive discussion about the public interest conceived broadly undergone notable developments since the 1950s. The triumph of liberal democracies in the Cold War has directed the concerns of the left away from socialism simply to expanding the place of egalitarianism and community within liberal democracy itself. A wish among those who reject the revivified concept of natural rights to nonetheless ground the place of rights and defend them from simple utilitarian calculations has become widespread. Concern with the place of virtue and nobility in liberal democracies and, indeed, concern with these phenomena simply has been renewed (Rawls 1971, Strauss 1952). All these trends have enriched and re-energized discussions of the public interest.

3. Can The Public Interest Be Implemented?

The third question is how the public interest might be implemented concretely and used as a guide for action. Some thinkers argue that the ‘public interest’ is too vague to be used other than rhetorically or that it is merely a name that sums up a country’s political and economic life at some moment frozen in analytical time (Friedrich 1962). More charitably, one might concede that it means a certain level of economic satisfaction and political freedom but that these are best reached through private and political competition, that is, when no one aims at them directly.

When we conceive the public interest broadly, however, it is not always so difficult to discern how it might guide action. Constitutions, for example, cannot be formed well without explicit attention to more than private concerns: Charles Beard’s worm’s eye view of the framing of the American Constitution has been debunked by more thoughtfully elevated judgments (Kesler 2000, Mansfield 1991) Once constitutionally secured, individual rights and liberties must be exercised individually, but steps to protect these rights publicly must be attended to explicitly by jurists. National defense is a public interest that guides specific legislative and executive action.

To say that the public good often receives explicit attention is not to say that it goes without debate, but to call it debatable is not to call it meaningless. The deliberations and result of the US’ constitutional convention prove the contrary. Similarly, if we take our private interest to include moral and intellectual excellence and not only economic opportunity and satisfaction we would not say that the disputability of these ends makes them pointless. On the contrary, their subtlety may make our attention to them all the more intense.

If we conceive the public interest more narrowly as assuring some equitable or safe provision and distribution of certain goods then it is again clear that the public interest can be a concrete guide. Are expanding access to communications and increasing public health served better by explicit government regulation with a defined public interest in mind of such and such a level of drug safety and computer ownership, or are they better served by discovery and application fueled largely by private desires for wealth, knowledge, and mastery, with little regulatory adjustment of the private application of resources? Is improved education secured better by unfunded parental choice, by funded choice, or by public provision or standards? Explicit attention to health, education and responsible choice as public interests seems necessary to help secure their sufficient provision and fair distribution, if only to ward off excessive regulation and allow private efforts to flourish.

4. Is The Public Interest Followed?

The fourth question is whether anyone in practice pays attention to the public interest or whether private interest in fact dominates even in public matters. It is argued that the actions of voters, representatives, and bureaucrats all can be explained as attempts to enhance private goods; this analysis can be expanded to professionals, journalists, and intellectuals who do public talking, if not public business, for a living. Even if the public interest could guide us, in this view it does not.

Some recent research in the US and Western Europe indicates that voters do not simply or usually vote their immediately selfish economic concerns, that the behavior of representatives cannot always or primarily be explained by their wish for re-election, that bureaucrats do not always want to increase their agency’s size, and that groups and individuals sometimes do seek benefits for publics from which they and their members do not receive special advantages (Lewin 1991, Wilson 1989). Of course, a link between private and public interest is to be expected and largely desired in liberal democratic regimes, for the responsibility we encourage in citizens and officials is meant to benefit not just others but oneself as well (Kesler 2000).

Obviously, whether political action actually attempts to serve public interests requires continued study. Only the excessively naive would believe that unbridled devotion to a clearly conceived common good directs each and every political choice. But only the false or foolish sophisticate would believe the public interest to be as fleeting and airy as the summer snow.


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