The “Public Interest” is Impotent

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.

  • davidmpark

    Sent this to a West Valley City Mayoral Candidate, and a version of it to each of the other five.
    “Mr. (Candidate),
    Last election I threw you off my property when you came to the door, and I was right to do so. In the time that you, Mr. Huynh, have been a city councilman, my family and I lost more and more liberty and had our wealth ruined by your city and it’s system. We have received no justice, no decent explanation as to why the laws were created as such, nor have we seen any signs of reversal. What we have seen is a city that is out of it’s collective mind and is suffering under terrible repression and poverty.
    Now, it’s not just the recent scandals of Mr. Winder’s double identity or the police shooting their own citizens, nor is it the other issues of the city’s financial viability, economy, or demographics that’s directing our consent. It’s our family’s personal experiences here in West Valley that is driving our recourse.
    We are not a family that fits your stereotypical molds. My wife has a severe traumatic brain injury and cannot work, along with diabetes, epilepsy, and cognitive and memory problems that make her unable to function. I must be home most of the time to care for her and our three children; all under the age of 11. I’m 34 years old and cannot get profitable employment unless I divorce her and place our kids in daycare (which I will not do). Social Security/Disability kept us in red tape for four and a half YEARS and finally granted supplemental security insurance. Now we finally won SSDI, so the funding is coming in. And for all that time, food stamps didn’t supply enough for a family of five with our situation. Medicaid didn’t support her medical needs. The housing programs (federal, state, and West Valley’s) are backlogged to five years. We are in a bad way.
    In that time when we had literally nothing and no real means of supporting ourselves, my in-law’s bought us a home to rent here in your city. The in-laws rent out the basement to help us afford a reduced rent. We didn’t want to live here, but we really had no choice. And since our income is severely limited by things out of our control, we resorted to unconventional methods of earning our living: raising rabbits, chickens, and ducks; using them for food, raiment, fertilizer, and a host of other products that we couldn’t afford. We worked hard to build hutches and coops, keep them comfortable, feed them home-grown foods and leftovers so we had no waste, vet them and prevent issues with neighbors. We did not sell our animals but reared and consumed their goods on premises. The animals thrived and we thrived. These animals kept us comfortable in ways your system couldn’t.
    On August 16, 2012, completely out of the blue, we received notice from Zoning Enforcement that we had 8 days to remove our animals or face severe punishments. A neighbor reported us because he thought that he was hurting the folks who live in our basement because they claimed that his tow truck ran over their lawn; they hurt us instead, in a fit of revenge. Without presenting a warrant, your Zoning Enforcement people went onto our property and made their report. After getting that threat on the 16th, we frantically tore down our hutches, and gave our wealth away to make you and your constituents feel better about their property values and pride. We had far more financial difficulties due to this loss of our wealth.
    We tried working with Zoning to get them back, but all we got was the usual runaround and rejection. Zoning claims that we have to get a lot of laws repealed before they will allow us the right to feed ourselves. With our previous experiences with the city council and Mayor Winder, we knew that wouldn’t happen. Many there love the system on nearly a religious level; there was no way they or you would willing change laws that would allow people to create wealth that you couldn’t tax at every turn.
    We have also had problems of bullying at our kid’s school, Rolling Meadows Elementary. Mainly, the bullying of our oldest child have been along racial lines; the majority of her classmates being of Latino origin, they systematically and with the teacher’s and school’s blessing harassed our daughter to make her education useless. The bullying of our middle child is due to a medical condition that she cannot control. We have spoken many times to the Principal, but she has failed to resolve the situation on her end. The city attorney stated that we have no right to petition the city to resolve this. My only option is withdraw my children into a charter school or private school, both of which we can’t afford or transport them to. I know a lot of the school’s governance is not the City Council’s responsibility, but this is in your area of representation and it reflects on you as our councilman.
    We also have had issues of transients who use our property without our consent. We’ve called the police to come and collect suspicious packages that are left in our carport. We have also had people that stole growing produce out of our garden and anything else that’s not nailed down to the point that my wife is too afraid to leave the house without me being with her. Also along those lines, she is afraid to do any changes to our garden now because she thinks Zoning will threaten us again! A severely disabled woman is terrified of your government punishing us; congratulations!
    This is why I threw you and your opponent both off our property last election, and why I’ll do it again. We had already faced unimaginable cruelty from your city, many of it’s citizens, and neighbors; on top of the bibles of paperwork that my wife’s disability produces and my children’s issues of dealing with their mother’s degeneration and eventual demise, that I didn’t want to deal with this city anymore.
    That is the legacy West Valley City has made with our family!
    I will not support you, Mr. (Candidate), or you opponent Mr. (Candidate), or anyone else for Mayor that has a history of backing this sort of discrimination. The cruel injustices done to us will not be reversed because you both will support the system that forces us to earn and thrive in your approved way. We are to stay in this poverty under threat of arrest since our unique situation of a young married couple with a severely disabled spouse and young children is a very unique situation that is not recognized by West Valley City. I can only assume it’s because we have no wealth or influence that will profit any of you.
    Good luck Mr. (Candidate) on your campaign and political career, and I hope your hard work will get you what you want. Just remember that there are some people that will get terribly hurt. I don’t expect a response or you to make any changes which will make our lives easier. But, as you are running for government in the city we are stuck in, I wanted to make our standpoint known.
    Hope you are well,
    David M. Park
    (Address and Phone Number added)”
    I know I’m not a good writer; not as involved as I should be. Thank you Mr. Boyack for the inspiring article and I will still fight West Valley to at least get our rabbits back.

  • davidmpark

    Okay, I thought I got the candidates name covered in this, but I missed one entry. I’m terrible at this stuff.
    Just to keep the record straight: Mr. Huynh did respond to this email and did his best to help out in getting us our livestock back by petitioning the City Manager’s office. Unfortunately, the City manager’s office reject both of our petitions claiming that the law needs changing by the whole City Council. The Assistant City Manager said he would forward this letter to the rest of the council, and to keep fighting.
    Not the best of outcomes so far; but at least they’re not giving me that hard of a time since I’m obviously an amateur. And considering they are facing really bad scandals and such, their answers were very composed.

  • David,
    I’ve seen similar attitudes in South Jordan, where I live.  In 2005 the city leaders decided we needed pages and pages of city code to shape the city.  I’ve been frustrated with this, feeling that they are more concerned with the appearance of prosperity than actually staying out of the way of people’s ability to prosper.