What Is the Public Interest?

"What Is the Public Interest?" (with Daniel Bell), The Public Interest, Fall 1965.


The aim of THE PUBLIC INTEREST is at once modest and presumptuous. It is to help all of us, when we discuss issues of public policy, to know a little better what we are talking about — and preferably in time to make such knowledge effective.


A FEW words about the title. It is probable that as much mischief has been perpetrated upon the human race in the name of “the public interest” as in the name of anything else. Indeed, there are even political scientists who, disgusted by the whole business, insist that the phrase be discarded, along with its equivalents, “the common good , ” “the common weal”, “the public welfare”, “the national interest,” etc. It is either misleading or meaningless, they say; there is no such thing as “the public interest”; there are only private interests — of individuals , groups , classes — which maneuver to obtain the greatest amount of public influence and public power, and each of which discerns “the public interest” in its own image.

Clearly, it would be presumptuous of us to resolve by fiat a theoretical issue that has vexed political philosophers for over two thousand years now. Whether there is a meaning to be ascribed to the phrase “the public interest,” and if so what this is , is a matter that will be discussed in our pages — though we suspect it is not likely to be finally settled there, or anywhere for that matter. But we do believe that the term , or one of it s synonyms, is not to be escaped from. It may be true that all men are self- seeking; it is demonstrably untrue that all men are always , and in all respects, self-seeking. We do not think, for instance, that the American Political Science Association can be adequately defined as a self-seeking organization — even if some of its members believe that only such a definition is, in general, permissible. Most members of the APSA (and, of course , of other learned bodies ) , when they meet in solemn assembly, surely have the sense they are quite disinterestedly (if passionately) concerned with truths that bear upon something like “the public interest.” We think their sense of the matter is an authentic one, even if it is difficult to articulate.

Walter Lippmann has defined “the public interest” as follows: “The public interest may be presumed to be what men would choose if they saw clearly , thought rationally , acted disinterestedly and bennevolently.” There are other more complicated definitions; but this will serve. Obviously, there never has been a society in which the public interest ruled supreme; equally obviously, so long as men are not angels, there never will be. But it is also true that there has never been a society which was not, in some way, and to some extent, guided by this ideal . . . no matter how perverse its application, in our eyes. We feel that a democratic society, with it s particular encouragement to individual ambition, private appetite, and personal concerns has a greater need than any other to keep the idea of the public interest before it. Democracy, after all, is government by public opinion. An& as one of the earliest writers on the subject pointed out, for public opinion genuinely to exist, it must be (a) opinion, not fancy or prejudice, and (b) public — i.e. , directed toward the common good rather than to private benefits . It is such a public opinion that THE PUBLIC INTEREST seeks to serve.

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