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Public Interest

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  • Pages: 4
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  • Category: Interest

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To claim to hold the public interest is to claim something big. The ambiguity that arises from such a broad concept almost always means that it will have great, and sometimes detrimental, consequences. Because it is a sort of a “je ne sais quoi” (Sorauf – p. 623) of American politics, it is a strong but malleable tool that can be used by anyone who has the audacity to give it a meaning. Frank J. Sorauf, while conceding that no “neat and precise”(p. 616) definition exists, declares that the public the interest signifies “that public policy alternative which most deserves enactment” (p. 616). This broad definition invariably creates many options that can be used to classify each form of the public interest. Sorauf labels them as, “Commonly-Held Value…Wise or Superior Interest…Moral Imperative…Balance of Interest…Undefined.” (pages 619-624).

While this complicates the concept, it does so necessarily to encompass all the ways a policy can earn the distinction of being in the public interest. The structure of government, and the particular need it serves in a democracy, elevate the need for a public interest. Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that the main interest of government was to “serve the interests we all have in common” (Held, 1970, p 101). Rousseau wrote that, “If the clashing of private inters has rendered the establishing of societies necessary, the agreement of the same interests has made such establishments possible. It is what is common in these different interest that forms the social bond…it is on the basis of this common interest alone that society must be governed” (p. 39-40). This belief gives the pubic interest a unique and important role in work a government does.

The introduction of the phrasing “public interest” into our political lexicon came in the twentieth century, even though the political theory behind it is centuries older. The idea of the “public good” has evolved into what it now called the “public interest”. The impact that this change in wording has had on the concept goes beyond terminology and has implications on the substance of the concept. The word “interest” has a more individual and abstract association and therefore alters the motivation behind fighting for the public good. The reason for this change in words is representative of a larger shift in politics. Richard Flathman wrote, “It was not until the satisfaction of…individual interests came to be considered a prime object of politics that ‘interest’ could replace ‘good’ as the primary commendatory concept of political life” (p. 14).

It seems clear that the electorate will decide and dictate the terms on which the public interest is formed in the future, as they have done in the past. But the danger of our government working solely within the walls of what is deemed the public interest of the day will continue to exist. It is not common to think of the public interest as being manipulated, even though it has and can still be. When legislators and lawmakers depend too much on what they perceive to be the public interest causes them to depend too much on the preferences of the moment and they turn their back on the gradual modification of values (Braybooke p. 147), which has been the history of progress in America.

Geldon Schubert wrote that, “It may be somewhat difficult for some readers to accept the conclusion that there is no public-interest theory worthy of the name and that the concept itself is significant primarily as a datum of politics” (p. 223). Perhaps the reason one simple theory of the public interest does not exist is because one simple operation to find the public interest does not exist. Like American democracy, the public interest in America is intricate, diverse, and way to large to marginalized into just a few words. This complexity is what makes it so powerful.

Works Cited.

Braybrooke, David (1962). The Public Interest. Nomos, Vol. 4, No. 11, pages 129-155.

Flathman, Richard E. (1966). The Public Interest: An Essay Concerning the Normative Discourse of Politics. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Held, Virginia. (1970). The Public Interest and Individual Interests. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Schubert, Glendon (1960). The Public Interest: A Critique of the Theory of a Political Concept. Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe.

Sorauf, Frank J. (1957). The Public Interest Reconsidered. Journal of Politics, Vol. 19, No. 4, pages 616-639.

Vaughn, C. E. (1915). The Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Edited from the Original Manuscripts and Authentic Editions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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