In a government run by popular vote and majority control, it is not uncommon to hear arguments used which claim that legislators, bureaucrats, or other government agents work in the “public interest.” More often than not, this phrase is used to justify policy proposals—essentially claiming that a compelling “public interest” justifies codification of a new law.
Examples highlighting this argument are plentiful. When he blocked a recently passed Utah law that sought to challenge federal authority over land within the state, a federal judge stated that, “There is a strong public interest in the enforcement of law on public lands.” Utah’s tight regulations on the distribution and sale of alcohol has long been justified based on “the public interest to restrict the availability of alcohol.” Forcing all taxpayers to fund government education systems has been perpetrated based on “the public interest to have as many people with [higher education] degrees as possible.”
Congress has created protectionist policies for the popcorn industry based on a “public interest to… strengthen the position of the popcorn industry in the marketplace.” Taxpayer-financed transportation systems are justified because of “the public interest to keep tens of millions of cars off already congested highways and from polluting the environment.” Targeting specific political groups such as Tea Party organizations with IRS audits has also been excused because, “The Internal Revenue Service was acting in the public interest.” And privatization is often opposed by statists because, as Keynesian economist Paul Krugman argued, it “isn’t in the public interest.”
Let’s be clear about something quite fundamental: public interest, however it’s defined (if at all), does not imply any authority. The perceived interests or desires of a group of people do not necessarily mean that the government under which they live may enact public policy in pursuit of those ends. In other words, just because some people want something to happen does not mean that it can or should.
Of course, there are certain things that can legitimately be done with an eye towards the public interest. One example is increasing transparency in government, enabling any citizen with the ability to better understand how their tax dollars are being spent and how their government is operating. Another example that benefits the public interest is whistle-blowing, wherein a government employee who is privy to evidence of waste or abuse leaks the information to the public so that they can be made aware of the wrongdoing.
These activities legitimately benefit the “public interest” by informing individuals without imposing burdens upon them. In contrast, the laws and government programs listed above, and countless others like them, fail to benefit the supposed “public interest” because they invariably benefit some individuals at the expense of others. In short, they are not in the public interest, but a majority’s interest. A dissenting minority whose wallets are emptied or rights are violated has no interest in an unjust policy that others like and want, and which is wrongly justified as existing for the benefit of all persons.
It is tempting for government officials to extrapolate their majoritarian consensuses into mandates from the masses, thereby claiming that their preferred policy or project is suddenly in the “public interest” and will benefit the “public good” or general welfare. There clearly does exist a public interest; life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are among the unalienable rights enjoyed by all mankind, and a legitimate public interest to preserve and protect these rights justifies a very limited few (“natural”) laws. For anything more than this narrow objective, which encapsulates most of what governments today involve themselves in, the public interest is impotent, unable to provide any moral or legal justification for powers the government should not possess.