The Public Interest—Fact or Fraud?


Political philosophy is sometimes thought to be either prescriptive or descriptive. This distinction has its origins in certain epistemological models, specifically the idea that there is a fundamental difference between statements which convey factual information and those which convey evaluations. The former can be supported by evidence and logic, while the latter are supposed to be incapable of such support.

Though I do not accept this dichotomy, and lately a number of philosophers have given powerful arguments in support of drastic rethinking of this traditional division, I shall not belabor the issue. I want to deal with a political concept which is often used as if it had no evaluative import; without prejudicing the inquiry, therefore, I shall simply look at the various senses of the concept and in the course of this investigation whatever develops concerning the applicability of the fact/value dichotomy to the concept in question will speak for itself.

Common Good

A central feature of Western political theory has been the concern with the notion of the "common good." The idea is conveyed as well (or ill) by the phrases "collective good," "social good," "public good," "public interest," "national interest," etc. What lies at the root of all of these is the belief that it is possible to make sense of the idea that there are values or goods which benefit the whole of society, humanity, the public, the race, the community, etc. That the idea cannot be made more sense of at this point of the paper should itself justify the attempt to undertake an analysis of it. Were it possible to offer a simple explication of it, there would surely be no need for the discussion.

It is commonly believed that there can be and are genuine conflicts between what is of value, good, or right for individuals and what is the collective (etc.) good. There is, of course, little agreement as to the precise sense of "good", "value," and "right" in the contexts relevant to our discussion. Yet people do use these terms continually; moreover, it is not as if people used them in situations where they have no practical, real significance. Major political decisions, legal reforms, diplomatic activities are justified, explained, and promoted by their employment. In political contexts these terms are very often used in such a fashion that we get as a result frequent references to the "collective good" and its variants. At issue in this paper is whether such reference can have any sense at all, whether it is ever meaningful to make use of the idea of the "collective good" (etc.)

Some very ordinary, if not very clear, instances of the idea under discussion occur in the following expressions:

  1. Every statesman has the duty to preserve the public good.
  2. Sometimes the common good requires that the private interests of people be sacrificed.
  3. Government exists in order to secure (through its various features, e.g., courts, militia, regulatory agencies, powers, etc.) at all cost the good of the society.
  4. This governmental agency is designed to secure the public interest, necessity, and convenience.
  5. Censorship works against (or for) the common good.
  6. Water and air pollution are detrimental to the public good.
  7. In times of national emergency the rights of individual citizens must be sacrificed for the benefit of the society, for the common welfare.
  8. Political liberty is a common good.

There are many more statements with essentially the same content and intent which could be listed. Some of those above may seem odd in their present form but this is due, primarily, to the absence of the usual context within which references to the common good occur. In offering examples of expressions of any type it is always useful to remember that they occur within highly complex contexts in the main and stand on their own very infrequently. I have tried to provide examples which are familiar enough so that an appropriate context for them is easily imagined.

The purpose of examples in discussions such as the present is to investigate if there is anything that is central to whatever is at least nominally identical in each case before us. In all the above cases the idea of the "collective good" occurs in one of its synonyms. (This may appear to be a hasty assertion, inasmuch as by calling some notions "synonyms" for others we may be prejudicing our discussion. I trust, however, that the expressions I have cited are generally recognized as having essentially the same usage within the language of politics, at least. This, of course, does not necessarily tell us if the usage itself is consistent or wise.) By taking the examples in turn, I hope to discover what is intended by their employment within the contexts where they most frequently occur.


If every statesman has the duty to preserve the public good, presumably every statesman must know what the public good is. What could the public good be which a statesman could, in fact, preserve? It would have to be something that is good for the public, something from which benefit would accrue to everyone. Before we can tell if a statesman is indeed preserving the public good, we would have to know what could satisfy this requirement. What could possibly benefit everyone? Is there anything that is to everyone's benefit?

If we take as an example certain legislative measures that a statesman might support, the question arises what kind of measure could be of benefit to everyone. Unless we think that "the public" transcends everyone, we are faced with the responsibility of having to determine what, if anything, can be of actual benefit to every person in a political society. This would involve us in an investigation of what could constitute a benefit to everyone. We know that citizens of a country differ in many respects; we also know that to the degree that they differ the benefits to each will also differ. We must, therefore, ask if there is anything that is universally possessed by the citizens of a country, any respect in which everyone is the same, in order to determine if there can be anything which can benefit all people. Only once we have determined that there is such a thing, can we rest assured that the claim that the statesman must preserve the public good is meaningful and, therefore, useful in conveying to us something about what statesmen are supposed to be doing. At this point I shall not discuss whether there is, in fact, something which is to everyone's benefit; I want merely to point up the necessity of utmost care in considering the sort of claim under investigation.


In the next example we are told that the common good sometimes requires disregarding or sacrificing the private interests of people. In this example we encounter a difficulty which the previous one does not pose for us. It appears that there can be a dichotomy between the interest or good of the public and that of some members of the public. Can we accept this implication of the statement? In order to find out we must have some specific suggestions to look at. One such case might be where a highway is designed "to serve the public," but its construction is hampered by the fact that some private citizen happens to own a piece of land which lies just where the highway could best serve the desired purpose. This case is not unlike that covered in law under the heading of "eminent domain." Are we confronted with a genuine case of public versus private interest?

In one sense the idea of "public interest" in the present example is markedly different from the first. Where the statesman had a duty to preserve the public good, namely the good of everyone who makes up the public—by stipulation, at least—here we have definitely excluded the owner of the land (which blocks the highway) from membership in the public. That is, unless we want to argue that though the individual does not want to leave his land (on the terms set by "the public" via its representatives), his real interest lies in giving in to the conditions put to him. If we want to argue this line, we commit ourselves to having to demonstrate that the highway will in fact benefit our stubborn occupant over and above any benefit which he may get from staying put. To demonstrate this, we would once again have to involve ourselves in a determination of what is or is not of benefit to some particular person. That would not be a simple task inasmuch as what we would have to do is to judge for this person the kind of life he ought to lead. If he is deeply attached to his land, or if he puts a value on it which goes beyond the price we want to pay for it (price being the expression of monetary value), etc., our claim that he benefits more from the highway than from pursuing his own goals would require much argument. But even here the question arises if knowing that something is of benefit to someone entitles us to impose the benefit on him.

But the example specifies that the public good goes contrary to the private, in which case talking about the benefit which accrues to the stubborn landowner simply does not concern us. What remains amounts to the following: the public has become "the public" minus one person, namely the private citizen who finds himself in opposition to the goals of the rest of the public. The statement under investigation really hides the central problem, namely, that there is a conflict between the interests of everyone except the stubborn citizen and the stubborn citizen himself. In brief, the interests of some people conflict with those of others.

Here again we have not gotten entirely clear on the matter. We have still to ask whether we mean by "interest" anything which is in fact good for some people or, instead, anything that some people desire. If we accept that the stubborn homeowner has a true interest in keeping his home, can we also accept that others have a true interest in depriving him of it? The issue is not whether others have an interest simply in acquiring the land—if that is all that were at stake, the case would be simple: others could buy the land from the owner. There is no conflict between the interests of buyers and sellers. In fact, they have mutual interests whenever they exchange goods (e.g., money for land); the one has an interest in or will benefit from what he gains, and so will the other. (Of course, they may make a mistake about whether they do in fact benefit from the exchange. But this is not at issue here.) What the general claim alleges is that the interest of the private citizen can be sacrificed for the public good; but in fact what the example shows is that the term "the public" simply hides from us the fact that what is being talked about is the sacrifice of the interest of one person to the interest of other persons. The public, since it includes all persons, cannot be involved in such conflicts.

Of course the term "the public" and its synonyms are often used to hide this fact. If we were precise about matters, we would have to change our general claim to read: Sometimes the desires, wishes, goals, purposes, etc. of a certain segment of the public conflict with those of another. This, in turn, pushes us to consider whether or not thereby anything follows as regards what may or may not be done about that. Why is this a reason for anything like the democratic power of eminent domain? What grounds exist for favoring the majority in such cases? By what right, it may be inquired, do people who find themselves in large company impose their wishes on those who are either alone or find themselves in smaller company? There does not seem to be any good reason for supposing that there is any such right—though everything suggests, of course, that such imposition does occur.

Government for Good

But let's turn to our next example wherein we learn that government exists to secure at all cost the good of society. We can deal with this very briefly inasmuch as the case is like that which concerned the statesman. To determine what the government exists for requires the knowledge of what the good of society happens to be. And unless we want a sense of "society" which really amounts to "the majority" or "those with wisdom" and the like, the "good of society" can mean only "that which is good for every member of society."

Government Agencies

The same holds true for our next example where instead of government we are concerned with a given governmental agency. What is obviously different here is that a governmental agency is commonly designed to concern itself with some specific matters, such as the regulation of interstate commerce, foods and drugs, the electromagnetic spectrum, and so forth. And obviously the regulation of these areas of activity cannot involve regard for the public at large since not everyone must have an interest in these areas. Yet, of course, everyone's interest must be served if we read the imperative correctly—not to mention that everyone has to finance the regulation. It would appear, then, that here again the expression "to secure the public interest, etc.," hides from us the fact that what is in fact being secured is the interests or wants of some people. This, in turn, would require justification in its own right; but by referring to "the public interest" the need for special justification is evaded. Not only is it not possible to understand by the phrase a reference to everyone, but even reference to the majority is missing. For it is rare, indeed, to find a governmental agency which serves the interest of most of the people. Mostly the interests of a certain industry or group are being served, while most of the people must finance the service being provided.


Can we make more sense of the claim that censorship works against or for the common good? It would appear that here the "common good" is intended to refer to some kind of overall condition of harm or benefit which supposedly affects everyone in society. But that is precisely to beg the issue: if a book is forcibly kept off the market, it is not clear if other than a few people, including the author, publisher, and potential readers, suffer as a result. Yet some want to argue that in the case of certain kinds of books (or other means of communication) the harm or benefit which could accrue goes far beyond the persons who come in direct contact with the work. League of Decency groups commonly claim that the "moral fiber" of society deteriorates when certain works are permitted to circulate. Others make the claim that unless certain works (such as TV programs aired on educational networks) are put on the market, the society will suffer "cultural damage."

All such allegations amount to very little in terms of precise substance. Is it necessarily the case that someone's reading a pornographic book will produce harm either for him or someone else? Even if it does produce harm for some people—just as eating apple pie can produce harm for people who should be dieting—has this anything to do with the common good? It would seem far more accurate to claim that censorship harms some people actually and anyone potentially, and argue for this by reference to what are the implications of permitting any group of people to decide what may or may not be read; for instance, censorship could keep out of circulation important discoveries, literary masterpieces, political wisdom, etc.; it can also produce a general sense of fear on the part of those who write, or otherwise engage in creative work, and induce some people to be less than candid about issues which could be construed as offensive to censoring bodies, etc. The common good more often obscures the issue than clarifies it: censorship results in very personal tragedies mostly and can conveniently be ignored by the bulk of society.


Pollution, of course, is detrimental to those who are themselves not polluting but must pay for it. In Arizona it is not likely that Lake Erie's pollution matters very much, although in some measure everyone could be affected by pollution. The very fact that pollution is universal, in the sense of being a by-product of consumption, renders this claim plausible at once. But here again talk about the "public good" obliterates the real issue: whose pollution and at what cost? Clearly some people actually benefit tremendously by some kinds of pollution; for example, sanitation workers would not be overjoyed if garbage ceased altogether. Neither would the many companies which are involved in producing anti-pollution machinery. Nor, finally, would be the ordinary citizen who simply pollutes—but does so as a result of having benefitted greatly from certain kinds of consumption. Needless to say, reference to the public good obscures the important question of the pollution problem, namely, what kind of pollution is appropriate for what area of the country at what expense and who should pay for its elimination when it is unwanted and why? Of course, put in such form the question becomes both a difficult and answerable one: it imposes on us not only the responsibility to answer it but also the knowledge that we could answer it. By hiding the matter behind a reference to public good or harm, it is an easy matter to ignore the problem entirely with the very good excuse of "the public is everyone and no one." Reducing the problem to its manageable proportions will require its management by some people, namely those who are polluting irresponsibly, that is, in a way whereby they harm other people directly or indirectly.


Does a national emergency require abridgement of individual rights in behalf of the public good? I believe that this is one of the more troublesome cases under consideration. This seems to be because the example presupposes the idea of "nationhood" whereby it becomes synonymous with "society". A national emergency is thus nothing more than an emergency affecting all members of society. The common welfare is identical to the welfare of the nation, of the society. And we must really try to get clear on what these could mean before we accept the meaningfulness of the phrase "national emergency."

Emergencies are usually cases where something unexpected and dangerous occurs to someone. A community may experience an emergency situation stemming from climactic, flood, earthquake, or similar conditions; this simply means that those who reside in a certain area may all be endangered or actually harmed by what is happening. It is not very clear what rights people have in emergency conditions, since there are very different kinds of emergencies. Some totally dispose of any possible regard for human rights, since they involve virtually pre-civilized conditions. When the life conditions of people suddenly turn into the conditions to be found where no social organization could possibly exist, it becomes pointless to talk about respecting human rights. If we are confronted with conditions where the ordinary precautions involved in dealing with people are not open to us, there really cannot be any talk of such general principles as human rights; mostly people are on their own, fighting and scratching for the bare minimum of existence.

In other cases, such as organized massive aggression against the community by members of another community, there does not appear to be any conflict between what is good for the community and what is good for its members. Granted that to abstain from defending one's land may involve someone in a situation where he becomes a free rider, inasmuch as the self-defense of another or the rest could serve to repel the aggression that could have hurt him, this is not entirely unique to emergency cases. Presuming that people have an interest in self-defense, and presuming that, as with insurance, they will recognize the value of planning ahead as much as it is possible, there is no special reason to assume that, left to their cooperative, non-coercive efforts, individual human beings would not realize that preparation for defense is a great value. The free rider problem is only a problem in terms of certain assumptions: namely that people do not know the problem itself. Whereas in fact if people know that the free rider problem exists and still want to be prepared, they will simply cope with it as a possible but not inevitable situation. Since the issue is whether preparation for emergency is valuable, the free rider issue does not really make that much difference. If too many people refrain from preparation, the society will most likely become rearranged so as to favor cooperation in behalf of preparation. (The famous "prisoner dilemma" can only obtain where people are obsessed with getting away with free riding; and such obsession is not to be considered a general human condition.)

Aside from some of the practical objections to this example, in response to the emotive content of "emergency" situations, there is, of course, the issue of what would justify imposing on someone a fight for something he refuses to fight for willingly? There does not appear to be any good reason for thinking that any person's judgement as to what benefits another entitles him to impose these beneficial conditions upon the other. Until such reasons are offered there is no need to offer a counter-thesis. The will of the majority argument begs the question of why that is any justification at all; the idea that an emergency somehow obliterates human rights has already been considered; so long as rights are observable, so long as the legal conditions are operative, no grounds for eliminating them seem to exist. Once the society has broken up and no legal framework exists, there is no general guideline concerning what may or may not go on between people. In emergency situations it becomes ever so important that each person be prepared to think quickly and adjust himself to the conditions in such a fashion that certain central features of civilized life be retained if possible. To presume that in emergency conditions people loose their sense of decency and humanity is to give up on people altogether; yet to expect them to be as capable of living in terms of the ethics which govern their lives under normal circumstances is to obscure the context entirely.


Finally we are left with the suggestion that political liberty is a common or general good. In so far as political liberty is something which is a universal (if it were to exist), it does seem to be common to all those within a social organization or community. Political liberty is the absence of interference with one's efforts to lead one's life in peace. It is not being free of interference when one is himself attacking others or otherwise violating their human rights to life, liberty, and property. Thus the claim really amounts to holding up freedom from aggression as something that is of value, benefit, and interest to every person, even to one who would rather not enjoy it. For a person who prefers slavery can always hire himself out to people almost surely (though, of course, not irrevocably). His freedom to subjugate himself to virtual serfdom cannot be denied. He cannot, of course, force himself on another person. But, then, no one is claiming that political liberty is recognized as a universal, common, collective good; if it were so, the political systems through the world would be very different. The point is simply that, in fact, the appropriate condition of social existence is political liberty: it is something which can be secured for everyone without discrimination and all people have an implicit stake in it for purposes of running their lives. While bread and butter, or Cadillacs, golf courses, or men's clubs are not good for everybody—since not all people are interested in them or talented or situated so as to make use of them—political liberty is the condition which permits each member of society to pursue his own interests to the best of his skill and ability. Political liberty is a real possibility because people can refrain from interfering with another's life. It is the fact that people are ultimately free to choose their way of living (within physical limits) that makes political liberty more than just an empty issue. It makes possible when legally instituted, the flourishing of each man as a self-responsible being; this in turn renders it of value to everyone without exception.

If we now return to our examples of the statesman and the government, we may make more sense of the suggestion that each is responsible to secure or preserve the public good; since political liberty is the only true universal public, common, or collective good, one which makes the pursuance of individual goals, purposes, or goods possible, those who are in the service of a community or the public are dutybound to provide everyone with it.

At this point it may be suggested that I have grossly restricted the sense in which such notions as "the public good," etc., may be employed. Surely, it might be proposed, all the various uses of these notions cannot be so incorrect. Surely there must be something to the way these terms occur in common political parlance.

In order to examine this suggestion before we conclude that all senses of these notions which go beyond the meaning I have allowed for them are mistaken or sloppy, I will examine a few suggested interpretations for them. What could the term "the common good" mean? The following may be considered candidates:

a) That which is wanted by most of the people.

b) That which experts believe people ought to have or do.

c) That which the ideology of a given political system dictates.

d) That which God has decreed through his messengers.

e) The good which is thought to befall society when conceived of as an organic whole.

Some of these we have come across already in the previous discussion but it may be worth examining them here again.

Surely what most people want could very easily be not only bad for some members of society but also be bad for all of them. Just wanting things does not even indicate their value or worth, excepting perhaps economically.

What experts prescribe is very often of immense benefit but there is no reason to suppose that there can be experts concerning what anyone should do with his life. Obviously once one has decided that he likes architecture or boxing or philosophy, there are experts who can advise him and direct him toward the development of his skills. But it is absurd to suppose that there can be experts about the sort of life people should live in general, except perhaps in the most general way in which everyone can be an "expert:" live well, be good at your skills, don't bother anyone in his own pursuits, help those who deserve it, etc. For this no expertise is required or can be secured. So there simply cannot be experts in deciding what people ought to have or do—or, to put it better, how each person ought to live his life he is entirely well-equipped to decide. (Which is one reason why political liberty is a common good.) This does not exclude the possibility of experts in psychology, education, or even political science, provided no expert judgement as to what goals people ought to pursue is expected from any of them.

As to whether the ideology of a given political system can tell us what the public or common good is depends very much on what the ideology is. Clearly the notion is too general to be of much help. Ideologies differ, and some propose sound judgements, others very bad ones. To assess the suggestion here would require examples. Inasmuch as any political theory can be construed as an ideology if it is in any way suggestive—i.e., if it has practical implications—the present discussion could be construed as ideological. As such, surely it would be pointless to deny that this ideology entertains a notion of the "common good" which may or may not underlie some political system in the future. And the meaning of "common good" in terms of the present ideology or framework has already been offered, namely whatever can be shown to be in fact good for every person of a community, that is, political liberty. In so far as any ideology denies this, it cannot propose a viable account of the common good without involving itself in the difficulties I have been discussing throughout this paper.

Of course decrees of God come in many forms and in the final analysis it is not obvious why one should accept one version as opposed to another, why one should listen to this messenger instead of that one. The difficulty of making out God's will or message, and of making out what it would be to know these, including what God itself is, appear to me to be so severe that counting on an understanding of the concept of the "common good" by reference to this suggestion seems altogether futile.

Finally we come to the suggestion, briefly discussed earlier in this essay, that the common good is really something which must be understood by reference to a certain theory of society, namely the theory which holds that society itself has an identity which transcends the identity of its members, that society is an organic whole whose members comprise it but do not exhaust its nature; those who have held this view have gone so far as to argue for the literal validity of such concepts as "social consciousness," "common or general will," "national purpose," etc., ones which ascribe to society or humanity or to the community various person-like features. Unfortunately there is no evidence that any of the things which make consciousness, will, purposiveness, etc., possible are actually to be found in society (over and above the individual human organisms which make such things possible for each human being). How could society have a brain? How could it have feelings of sorrow or pride without the characteristics of the human organism which make such feelings possible? How could society think and have purposes if it had no means by which to learn language, to express itself, to give vent to its nature in the way people do?

Theories which make more out of society than what it is have given rise to some of the most horrible conditions for mankind and will probably continue to do so in the future. The illusion that a man is more than what he is, an individual, is very comfortable for some people, especially those who like to forego their self-responsibilities in favor of collective pride, those who like being members of a race to which famous people belonged instead of the people they really are; some desire to be part of social historical movements; others hide behind the anonymity of committees and political parties; still others find it more convenient to identify themselves with "the public" so when they ask for special privileges, that political authorities are in a position to hand out, they would not be required to offer reasons of their own. The familiar editorial "we" and the more and more common reference to collective guilt in connection with the ecological situation point to how useful (!) the notions I have been examing in this paper can be for certain people's purposes. Of course, in many cases it is sheer carelessness which leads to using these notions in the ways discussed above. Sometimes, however, it is not unreasonable to suspect that misuse stems from ill design. With those who use these notions most frequently, people who aim to acquire political power, this suspicion seems justified.

The present paper was meant to provide a brief investigation of the various senses in which the notion of the "collective good" and its synonyms occur in some familiar political contexts. It may be concluded that in the only useful sense identified herein very few political leaders seem to employ the concepts under discussion. The investigation has other dimensions, of course; hopefully what has been said here will provoke further discussion.

Tibor R. Machan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at California State College at Bakersfield. Dr. Machan is an associate editor of REASON.

This article originally appeared in the Journal of Human Relations under the title "Some Considerations of the Common Good" and is reprinted here by permission.