Public Values and Public Interest: Counterbalancing Economic Individualism

By Barry Bozeman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
TOWARD A PRAGMATIC PUBLIC
INTEREST THEORY

All the evolution we know of proceeds from the vague to the definite.

—C. S. PEIRCE, Collected Papers, Vol. 6


A MISSPECIFICATION OF THE PROBLEM: THE PUBLIC INTEREST

Encapsulating the substance of the previous two chapters and the major concerns of this book, we can say that the de facto public interest theory of economic individualism has become dominant in public policy and public management while more conventional public interest theories have not been able to compete, in part because of the apparent fecklessness of rival public interest theories. This chapter argues that the major alleged weakness of the public interest concept is not, in fact, a limitation but a misapplication of inappropriate utilitarian standards to public interest theory. The crux of the argument: the public interest is often thought of as a choice between, on the one hand, a murky ideal that has little or no intersubjective meaning and, on the other, a Bentham-like utilitarianism that is really little more than an expression of economic individualism (except that utilitarianism is even less useful because there is no accompanying calculus such as Pareto optimality, expressed as cost–benefit analysis). This is a false choice.

The apparent murkiness of the ideal in conventional public interest theory is not such a problem as it seems; market failure and the public interest require very different intellectual and practical policy starting points. With market failure one starts with the ideal (i.e., the perfectly competitive market) and frames policies that should move toward either remedying market failure or providing optimal allocation of resources in the face of market failure. But the benchmark is axiomatic. It is an ideal.

According to many conventional theories of the public interest, especially procedural approaches, there is no claim to identify an invariant and monolithic public interest but, instead, there is a search for a public value or set of public values that serve the collective good. The public value quest starts with

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