40. In The Public Interest

The ideals implicit in the term “in the public interest,” have been with me ever since I left my teens. The writings of John Stuart Mill and the British utilitarians, with their concern about the greatest good for the largest numbers, were at the basis of my original curiosity about this complex social concept. In the early age of television when color was first introduced, I was particularly appalled by the intrusion of commercials and sponsorship in American broadcasting when compared to the paternalistic controls of the airwaves being promulgated by Lord Reith at the BBC. Now there was my role model of an organization being run for and in the public interest.

I must confess that coming from an artistic family, I had little but contempt for banks, commerce, and the stock market (which I regarded as a professional high-stakes gambling den.) I saw corporations as carefully structured legal ways for investors and directors to escape liabilities and all responsibilities except for making profit. And in my mind, a profit by one party always entailed a loss by another. While capitalism seemed a frail system, state socialism as practiced by the Russians seemed to blend control, compulsion and terror. American democracy, however, seemed to hold ideals full of promise but often remiss in the actual fulfillment of commitments to “the public interest.”

One of my heroes during that era was the essayist Walter Lippmann who wrote that “the public interest may be presumed to be what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently.”1 In his time the term “in the public interest” was central to politics, policy debates and the proper functioning of government. While there was general consensus that furthering the well-being and general welfare of the people was a positive goal, little agreement existed on exactly what constituted the public interest.

Another scholar at that time, Pendleton Herring, wrote that “The concept of public interest holds the ultimate ethical justification for the demands that the state makes on the individual. The high value placed upon freedom and justice calls for the readiness of the citizen to make sacrifices if necessary and to share responsibility for sustaining the values of the polity.”2 Indeed, the public interest demanded considerations that transcended the immediate, the selfish and the merely expedient. The collective impulse of human beings and the need for social bonding and community were implicit in Herring’s concept of the public interest. The principles of justice, caring, health, education as well as economic interdependence were also fundamentally involved.

I think I reflected that spirit in my first book, One Viewer (1959) which examined the violation of ‘the public interest’ by the nascent industry of that time. I quoted one spokesperson, Richard Salant (who later became President of CBS) to the effect that, “We’ve let ourselves get pushed into agreeing that the words ‘public interest’ in the Communications Act really mean that kind of programming in which not much of the public seems to be very interested.”

Since then politicians in Washington and London have steadily undermined the public interest by selling a variety of airwaves (which rightly belong to the nation) to corporations and individuals, to the overall detriment of the people. The way commercials began to dominate what Americans saw on their television screens remains both a national scandal and a national tragedy. Other natural resources, such as water, oil, gas and coal, began to be sold by the state to corporations and even to foreign nations. Usually the excuse given by politicians was that the sale helped reduce (temporarily) the national deficit. As a consequence the Chinese, French, Germans and Americans now own most of the water rights and much of the power supply in the UK. For whose long term interest is this?

Today neo-conservatives believe that the public interest is best served when there is none. Some libertarians believe that when the public service is driven by government then authoritarianism or even totalitarianism could result. Both these extremists hold that government should get out of the way of corporations if well-being is to be attained.3 When it comes to the decline of concern about “the public interest” over the last 50 years, the lobbying and pressure exerted on both Congress and Parliament have come from the legally irresponsible global corporations whose driving motivation is profit. Just about the only demands shareholders of the corporations ever make concern profits (and their gains are always taxed at much lower levels than the earnings of the workers resulting in gross inequalities of wealth) with consequent losses for the state of a nation’s common good. There has been increased concern about the evasive corporate tactics in off-shore havens to shelter their gains and avoid taxation so instrumental to the functioning of the state in furthering the well-being of the population.

So where are we headed? Is profit truly the be-all and end-all of our species? I can’t believe we don’t have higher social, cultural and spiritual aspirations. That is why I am writing this blog.4 Like the public interest, our common good is not static. It shifts — both with our understanding and with scientific advances — our attitudes on what is possible, what we as human beings can create. In one word: progress. Continuing technological and scientific breakthroughs in communication are increasingly connected to the demands of the public interest. Crucial elements such as population increase, social inequalities and environmental considerations all have an impact on changes in the public interest. So do such commonly enjoyed services as transportation, water supply and energy distribution. Few people are prepared to sacrifice their current comforts for the potential risks involved in the construction of more nuclear reactors as a source of cheap energy. We now recognize threats posed by Chernobyl and Fukushima. Is it for the Common Good or in the Public Interest to proceed with building more?

Is the continued fervor for “privatization” of the few remaining publicly owned resources truly for the Common Good or is it for the enrichment — as it has proven to be — of a select group of the wealthy? Transportation, education, prisons, health and child care are all under consideration for private outsourcing. This despite the revelations of Blackwater, KBR and Wackenhut in the US and G4, Atos and other groups in the UK. Many American States (16 so far) have introduced legislation to rein in the reckless outsourcing of public services to for-profit corporations and private entities. This will help to keep taxpayers in control of their services and increase both accountability and transparency. Nevertheless some states like Georgia have been considering such follies as the outsourcing of that state’s foster care system. In the UK the practices of miscreant outsourcing groups has proved to be an increasing embarrassment to the coalition government.

There are currently many ideas and groups debating new organizational forms for public services offering alternatives to the current impasse between profit and non-profit organizations. The possibility of such innovation has appealed to the British government and new arrangements have been made for the railway infrastructure (Network Rail) and through high performance NHS trusts in Foundation Hospitals. The government itself has come out in favor of a Community Interest Company to encourage social enterprise in the Public Interest.

The Gubelkian Foundation has assisted in establishing bodies not only looking at the design and potential of such new organizations but also to project the obstacles and difficulties these might face in delivering effective services. These include: How much autonomy would the organization have, including independence from government and political control? To what extent could the public purpose of such an organization be assured? Could private profit be made from its public service? Who would own the assets of the organization and how could these assets be disposed of? Who would be responsible for the direction and probity of this body? How would it raise capital to provide its service to greater numbers of groups or people? Indeed, how would efficiency be determined and achieved? The range and scope of these crucial questions is impressive indeed.

In democracies, the private-interest view of government assumes that politicians want to be elected (or re-elected). This is the public sector equivalent to the private sector assumption that businessmen try to maximize profit. Further, just as businessmen must respond to customers, and thus often are forced to do those things that the customers want, so politicians must respond to voters. This need to respond to voters has led politicians to enact socially beneficial programs which are sometimes greater than the economy can support. Following a decade of rather excessive spending by the Labour government, the aim of George Osborne at the Treasury has been to drastically reduce spending. The UK has cut public services by 8 percent since the coalition came to office but plans for the future are that the cuts by 2018 will total a reduction of 20 percent in eight years. The adverse affects of this will be on all but the richest and are unlikely to be ‘in the public interest.’

As opposed to the public-interest economic view, the private-interest of economic theory holds that those who are involved in government have the same motivations as those in the private sector; that is, they are motivated by a narrow concept of self interest: wealth, fame and power. If what is in the public’s interest is also in the private interest of government decision-makers, the public interest will be served. If there is a conflict between the public’s interest and the private interest of governmental decision-makers, the public’s interest will lose. It is the incentive structure that determines behavior, suggest these economic theorists. A poor performance by government indicates a bad incentive structure, not a problem with motives.

Even if we know everything and the rules for it, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, “the public interest” remains a puzzle. It has been called “the central concept of a civilized polity. Its genius lies not in its clarity but in its perverse and persistent moral intrusion upon the internal and external discourse of rulers and ruled alike.” Thus, as a value-laden concept, “the public interest” is to be much admired for its utility as a myth. I recognize it as more than just that: I view it as a basic recognition of our interdependence which encompasses the scope and diversity of our humanity for the good of our species in the years ahead.


1Walter Lippmann, Essays in the Public Philosophy, (1955) p.42

2Pendleton Herring, “Public Interest”, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, (1968) Vol.13, p.171

3Marcus G. Raskin, The Common Good, (1986) p.24.

4Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004)

5Stephen K. Bailey, “The Public Interest: Some Operational Dilemmas” (1962)

2 thoughts on “40. In The Public Interest

  1. Great blog. You didn’t mention the role of early education in this discussion of the public interest. Badley, the founder of Bedales, built the school on the value of “Work of each for weal of all” and it is this ethos that promotes the common good as distinct from the culture of individual winners and stars. However, very few (if any) pupils go on to build careers in the public sector or politics.

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