The question of public interest is the question of its existence. It is pertaining to the origin of the expression and its meaning, oftentimes hiding behind a seemingly altruistic notion. Since personal interest is a mandatory attribute of a human life, i.e. humans a priori aim to meet their needs and follow their passions, it is unbefitting to assume that public interest exists away from the nature of human beings, for someone and in order to achieve something.
The debate on public interest can revolve around different spheres in which the term comes to use: the public sector has to navigate its policies under the umbrella of public interest, there are organizations which claim to act as public interest actors and legislation which denotes and translates public interest execution. In this article, I would like to focus on the term itself, less than the derivatives of its numerous uses and abuses. Public interest is above all a political term, which promotes certain ideas and denies others, as well as a societal institution, that may include you or not.
Public interest can only exist if it brings about public benefits – it has to be executed in a way, that the public (i.e. a societal whole in a given state) is better situated, after the legislation, which is said to bring about the desired change according to public interest, has come into action. The fact that this kind of interest is designated as ‘public’ interest necessarily means that there must be a different kind of interest – not public, therefore private. We are now approaching the auto-ironic nature of the phrase: It is supposed to mean something that is universal, yet makes an exception for that which is its direct opposite: private interest. If therefore public interest is not universal, it is important to understand who benefits from it.
At this point a connection between democracy as a substratum of justice needs to be challenged. While I am not claiming that bringing about justice was previously done more efficiently by application of any other political system, rather than the democratic one, I would posit that it is not due to a fallacy in the system, but the impossibility of organizing (complete) justice system on a national stage.
The reason for that lies in the notion of interest. The fact that every individual holds their own ethical standards and follows their own values – leading them to the realization of their personal interest – means that, in order to do that, they need a certain freedom to maneuver their life accordingly. If that freedom is allowed, they can pursue the achievement of their goals in a just way (i.e. according to their ethical standards and values in a manner that allows them to produce the desired outcome. Only until their freedoms are not an infringement on another individual’s freedoms). If their pursuit of achieving their interest is limited by the collective decision making of what interest is and how it should be pursued, the individual interest is going to be pushed further and further away from realization, and this is bound to generate frustration among the citizens.
The answer to this democratic paradox is not more democracy, but less democracy. However, there are interests which are a common denominator to all individuals (considering they are in a sane mental state); the interest to sustain life, to be secure from other individuals etc. There is, for example, no clear need to debate whether it is public interest to punish murderers. In cases like this, it becomes clear, that what really is public interest, does not need to be put under questioning. It is a universal interest stemming from the right to life and is a sum of all individual interests.
The same does not go for the supposed ‘public’ interest – pertaining to various interests of lobbies, political parties, ideological groups, etc. The political use of this phrase is merely a reflection of political power battle between those claiming to act under the providence of public interest in order to dismantle the argument of their opponents, whose interests is private, and would supposedly be maleficent for society as a whole.
Let us consider a case of a large factory operating in a middle-sized municipality and a green party present in the area, working on obtaining new voters by exposing the alarming effects of the factory’s operations for the surrounding area. Due to the ideological trends in the area, inclined to be anti-industrial, the party plans to justify their concern and effort to shut the factory down by wrapping it up in the rhetoric of protecting the public interest. The other side, of course, tells a different story. They can only claim private interest: to sustain their functioning and their way of making a living. Which side gains the defense of ‘being in public interest’ is conditioned by the ideological trend and political demagoguery. Clean environment or jobs? Which one is the higher value of the elective body? That becomes the question which in turn decides upon what is public interest. It is evident that sacrifice is going to take place since some private interest has to give way to the other private interest, which won the battle of presenting itself as public.
The illusion of pressure groups and political parties as all-knowing entities – which mean only the best and are benevolently transmitting their enlightened vision of reality to the elective body – provides for a following of those citizens who identify themselves with the groups’ promoted reality, which serves solely their private interest.
However, we cannot leave the decision of what public interest is to the abundance of their elective representation and the number of supporters. Humanity did not abuse the notion of public interest to merely limit certain liberties, but also to execute mass infringements on human rights. The phrase ‘public interest’ is an esthetic version of majority rule dictatorship. In the name of public interest, accompanied by propaganda and indoctrination groups of various interests brought about sad and horrific chapters of history, in which lives of whole ethnic minorities fell short of being recognized as public interest.
A sense of extremity in such claims occurs due to the notion that the Western world predominantly lives in a time and space where the values of enlightenment have not become extinct. However, that is not true for all places and all times in human history. Just as the society is a sum of individuals, public interest can only be a sum of individual interests, never an all-encompassing universal consciousness. Anybody claiming that their and your interest are also public interest, used the moment of weakness of their opponent and their inability to object and protest, in order to secure their place on the pedestal of collective will which is going to serve him. And indeed, a smarter excuse for an execution of private interest can hardly be invented.