First a disclaimer. Last night I wrote a brilliant post on the question of public interest. My complex argument was bullet proof, the logic impeccable; it was an intellectual masterpiece. Then I did something to erase the whole thing. What follows is a mere shadow of what was lost, and humankind will ever be the lesser for it.
I closed a recent post with the following paragraph:
The point is that individual greed can always be counted on to undermine the public interest if given the chance. Therefore, the question should not be about limited government, but about effective government, regardless of size, that is capable of striking the right balance for current and anticipated conditions that both optimizes individual and corporate freedom to act while protecting the public interest. That, of course, brings us to the next question: What is the public interest? We will take that up anon, but a quick review of previous posts will point in the right direction.
What is the public interest? It seems to me that the public interest has to do with the structures, systems and values that define our communities, states, regions and nation. Each of them is a debatable matter, and debate is essential for us to come to provisional agreements about what is in the public interest for the times and conditions that are present or anticipated soon. Our foundational documents provide both the basic structures for doing that and the ideals that point in the right direction.
Those ideals combine a passion for individual rights with limitations to prevent the systemic privileging or oppression of one segment of society over another. Moreover, our understanding of what constitutes unwarranted privilege or oppression has changed over the years. The standards of the 18th century cannot do for the 21st.
My own understanding of the public interest draws a little on John Rawls (1921-2002), and heavily on the work of W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993), a statistician who turned his attention to understanding economic systems in the work place. One of his principles was that unless a system is structured to give the workers what they need to be successful, it is pointless to hold them accountable for performance. Transferring that to the realm of the public interest suggests that a society that creates or tolerates conditions that militate against the potential for success in the lives of ordinary citizens cannot then hold those citizens accountable for their failure to do better.
What conditions are needed for the average citizen to enjoy the potential for success? I suggest that they include the best in educational opportunity; freedom from oppression, bigotry and prejudice; fair and equitable taxes; fair and equitable courts; fair and equitable access to governmental decision making; public policies that reflect the ideals of stewardship of all resources; fair and equitable access to those resources, and the like. In other words, the public interest is about the health of the community and the health of the relationships that exist within it. It is about building up and preserving community. Perhaps not surprisingly, public policies that strengthen and protect the public interest also promote a robust ethic of individual accountability – a very American value.
Political agendas that emphasize the aggrandizement of power and wealth for those who are already powerful and wealthy are not in the public interest. Political agendas that emphasize the rights of some individuals to exclude, oppress or otherwise limit the freedom of other individuals are not in the public interest. Political agendas that absorb national resources for purposes that provide little or no benefit to the building up of the community are not in the public interest.
Obviously the question of public policy deserves more than a short post, especially a reconstructed one, but it may serve to encourage some thinking and conversation.