Beyond Labels

A 360° Discussion of Foreign, National and Local Policy Issues

Jan 11: What Does “in the Public Interest” Really Mean?

Monday’s Topic

For several hundred years, governments and societies have focused on certain activities as being “in the public interest.” (In fact, I suppose some would say that the purpose of government itself is to establish an appropriate (whatever that means) balance between the public interest and individuals’ interests.)

The “public interest,” “public good,” and “common good” are often used as rationales underlying various policy prescriptions. They presume that such an “interest” and “good” can readily be identified. And, more importantly, that the specific policy being promoted is actually the most efficient, efficacious and fairest way to achieve that “public interest.” Amongst moral philosophers, there appears to be more skepticism that this is the case than most of us might think. For example, here is an extract from the introduction to a paper on the public interest in a planning (like city planning) context—sorry for all the “academic-ese”:

The ‘public interest’ has long been used to justify planning as an activity that restricts
certain private property rights….

[Recent] research has demonstrated how many of the traditional arguments for planning in the public interest are rooted in the perception of it as a ‘technical’ profession predicated on the possession of design skills and conducted according to a model of rational comprehensive decision-making….Indeed, it is now generally accepted that planning is an inherently political activity, informed by values and often conducted against a backdrop of competing interests and power asymmetries….This view has weakened the position of the public interest justification for planning. Indeed, there now exists a well-established critical suspicion of potentially universalising concepts that approach the idea of the public interest in planning with a significant degree of cynicism…. Some have gone further in suggesting that the idea of the public interest provides little more than ‘a flexible construct for the articulation of disparate views’…, as contending positions exploit the public interest concept to support their arguments. Moreover, recent research has empirically demonstrated the difficulty experienced by planning practitioners in identifying what the ‘common good’ or the ‘public interest’ may entail…. This side-lining of the public interest concept has been reinforced by the current prevalence of collaborative-oriented approaches in planning academia…and the growing interest in agonistic theory…which generally eschew rather than contest debate on what may constitute the public interest.

So…that’ll be the subject of Monday’s discussion. Is there a “universal public interest,” or is “public interest” a much more malleable, political concept enmeshed in a group’s moral foundations (in the Jonathan Haidt sense)?

Willing to Read More?

Here are some resources to read/skim/glance at:


  • Political, philosophical/moral and religious references

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    In ordinary political discourse, the “common good” refers to those facilities — whether material, cultural or institutional — that the members of a community provide to all members in order to fulfill a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common.

    The common good is the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.

    Three essential elements of the common good are respect for the person, the social well-being and development of the group, and peace and security.

    The benefit or interests of all: ”It is time our elected officials stood up for the common good”

    The common good is beneficial to everyone or most everyone. The common good is better for society because it is beneficial to everyone whereas individual rights only suites the user of the rights.

    A community is genuinely healthy when every single person is flourishing. This is not the utilitarian formula of the greatest good for the greatest number, but the moral formula of the greatest good for all, simply on the basis that they are human beings and therefore inherently worthy of respect.

    The common good approach suggests that ethical actions are those that benefit all members of the community. The virtue approach describes an assumption that there are higher orders of goodness to which man should aspire, and that only moral actions will help us achieve that higher level.

    More recently, the ethicist John Rawls defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are… equally to everyone’s advantage”. … But these efforts pay off, for the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded.

    A community is genuinely healthy when every single person is flourishing. This is not the utilitarian formula of the greatest good for the greatest number, but the moral formula of the greatest good for all, simply on the basis that they are human beings and therefore inherently worthy of respect.

    Every person should have sufficient access to the goods and resources of society so that they can completely and easily live fulfilling lives. The rights of the individual to personal possessions and community resources must be balanced with the needs of the disadvantaged and dispossessed.

    • Jill Lepore, THESE TRUTHS: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (2018) (describing how Jefferson’s “truths,” (political equality, natural rights and popular sovereignty,) reflect the ever changing definitions of “the public interest” since 1492)

  • Hugh, I like your essay– reference to Lepore is for a proposed footnote.

  • Hugh: I had intended to provide a link to a critique of Rawls’ theory. Here it is:
    Review of A Theory of Justice (Harsanyi).

    You may find it interesting…

    Oh, and by the way, pretty much all of the articles I’ve read are based on a assumption that everyone is “rational.” But Kahnemann & Tversky and the blossoming Behavioral Economics folks’ work seems to belie that bedrock assumption. So where does that leave us?

    • It leaves me where I have been for a while. My two academic focuses, on psychology (late 50s) and on economics (early 60s), have had me in the Behavioral Economics camp before that was a published concept. Gary Becker’s book in the mid-70s was the real start of acceptance of the concept. The assumption of the rational man is as helpful and the overly pedantic concerns of some authors as to “defining” what is in the common good. The goal is not to define it but to move toward it even though it is ever a moving target.

  • The topic of the common good is, in truth, one of political governance and the inevitable pressures that cause constant political change. While somewhat indirectly related, these are two articles deal with immediate realities that shape how the common good is or is not achieved: <!ArD0BQemtYST2VSIAtV0wXMJnalI?e=Xx4HZW> <!ArD0BQemtYST2VXX0ulWz3u_TRDn?e=IsaT4n>

  • The ”public interest” is always in the process of redefinition. The medieval town commons. At Maine’s statehood, the “public trust” in tidelands, now being redefined and broadened, especially in the Western (dry) states to encompass environmental protection. Tax incentives, including evolving definition of charitable exemptions of all sorts. There is an evolving public interest in “truth” that can be generally accepted (true peer review) without ridicule.

    The dialectic should be between “common good” and “freedom.” On the right today, “freedoms” are all important. (guns, political expenditures, free exercise of religion) But also on the left (abortion, press, secularism). What is lacking is the “Common Good” as a talisman, as a crucial counterbalance—accountability — to the “freedoms” we want. every “freedom” must be balanced against responsibility to the larger community, and where appropriate, socialized or subject to the community’s definition of “the public interest.” That is what democracies do. (Or should).

    Here is a TED talk comparing current Chinese and western definitions of “the Greater Good.”

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