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:
- The Wikipedia entry for Public Interest is not one of Wikipedia’s best–it’s short text has multiple issues. But it does cite some of the works that most current academics cite in their own articles on the subject.
- Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is an oft-cited source, both by those who apply his theory and those who modify/critique it.
- How to Define Public Interest? (St. Paul University Lecture)
- Three Moral Theories (MIT Lecture)
- Government as Servant of the People (introduction to Public Policy and the Public Interest (Lok-sang Ho)
- Acting in the Public Interest: A Framework for Analysis (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales)
- On ‘the subject’ of planning’s public interest (the paper from which I quoted above)