What is the Public Interest?
Tibor R. Machan
In the midst of the current orgy of capitalism-bashing, unleashed by those who earnestly believe that they should be directing the buying and selling activities of the public, there is once again a good deal of talk about how we must all serve the public interest and forget about our own selfish goals. Just a few days ago Al Gore went on a demagogical frenzy, denouncing "market triumphalism" and lamenting the perfectly sensible concern that "Laws and regulations interfering with the operations of the market carr[y] a faint odor of the discredited statist adversary we had just defeated" (i.e., Soviet socialism). He even asserted, without a scintilla of proof, that the Cold War victory of democratic capitalism--which means, the mixed economy over a dictatorially planned one--"led, in the United States, to a hubristic 'bubble' of market fundamentalism that encouraged opponents of regulatory constraints to mount an aggressive effort to shift the internal boundary between the democracy sphere and the market sphere."
Of course, no such thing happened at all. Ever since its inception the United States has been a mixed system. One need but remember that even among the Founders there was a vehement debate about how centralized the U. S. government should be, with Alexander Hamilton leading the statist faction and Thomas Jefferson those who favored less concentration of power.
In other words, to quote Ronald Reagan, "Here we go again." The cheerleaders of statism try to gain advantage by distorting history. In the last fifty or more years there has not been any effective move away from the "democratic sphere." (Just consider as a case in point, the U. S. Supreme Court's 2005 ruling that eminent domain law can be used to transfer ownership from less to more taxable private use, a distortion of the market friendly Fifth Amendment if there ever was one.) The Congress has moved steadily toward populism, away from a system restrained by the Bill of Rights, by principles of classical liberal justice. Al Gore simply wants to move faster with all this, more power to his crowd, period.
The moral system these avid fans of statism are peddling is the doctrine of service to the public interest. You know, "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" and similar calls to have us all abandon the Declaration's ideals in favor of those of communitarianism, even out and out socialism. The public interest is back with a vengeance. But what exactly is it?
In the history of political thought the public interest or common good has been identified in a variety of ways but perhaps the most provocative and influential has been Jean Jacques Rousseau's idea of the general will--in more recent lingo, "the will of the people." No, this is not some democratic consensus of a majority of the citizenry. It is, instead, a belief in some overarching universal purpose that the citizenry of a country must serve. But then what is that purpose? Yes, that is indeed the rub.
That purpose is exactly what those who peddle the idea say it is. It is in fact the purpose of the likes of Al Gore or anyone else who invokes the idea. The public interest or general will is nothing definite apart from what those who make reference to it want it to be. It is the promoters of the idea that all of us must serve the public interest who, frankly, establish what it is. It is their own agenda, what they take to be important, never mind the rest of the public!
It was in fact the American Founders, who learned a good deal from John Locke, who advanced a pretty sensible and workable idea of the public interest, even while they had some disagreements about it. They believed, and laid this out in the Declaration of Independence, that government promotes the public interest when it secures the individual human rights of all citizens. All of them, not some special group's with its subjective agenda. Their brilliant solution to the problem of just what is the public interest is that it is the protection of everyone's liberty to live as he or she chooses, provided it doesn't thwart the same liberty of others.
Such a minimalist conception of the public interest does full justice to our human nature! We are all in need of liberty and we are also very different from one another which this liberty then fully accommodates. One size does not fit all except for one thing--everyone must be free. And that is the only sensible, morally sound idea of the public interest. Trouble is that this idea doesn't accommodate the goals of those who want to impose their agenda on the rest of us. It is those folks who give rise to the scandalous special interest politics of Mr. Gore's democratic sphere. (And he isn't being up front about that either since if the democratic sphere fails to include the agenda of the AGW crowd, it loses legitimacy for him.)
Al Gore & Co. don't like market fundamentalism because what that amounts to is individual liberty for everyone and functions as a bulwark against regimenting us all to fall in line behind Mr. Gore. For my money, I take market fundamentalism any day over the kind of fundamentalism that gives Mr. Gore & Co. power over all of us.