The public domain, the commonweal, public interest, public goods, national interest - busybodies through the ages have tried to tell us as individuals what is good for us. Often 'we' resisted, sometimes calling into question the whole notion of a wider collective interest beyond the aggregation of individual preferences. In extreme situations, zealous authorities have compelled individuals to fit, for better or for worse, into predetermined notions of the public good whatever the preferences of individuals. These attempts usually ended in failure after much unpleasantness, the latest example being the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and end of the Cold War. The social engineering capabilities of markets are proving rather more effective instruments of change, as some of the transformations known as 'globalization' would indicate. Yet because of the emphasis of free market advocates on individual choice, the element of compulsion and the differential power of private actors in a market setting often remains obscured.
The controversy surrounding the relationship between the interests of the collectivity and the narrow interests of private individuals or corporate entities keeps coming back across a range of political cultures, whatever the nature of the political regime in place at a given moment. This is delicate ground to tread, the territory of the most vexing but fundamental questions for humankind. Freedom is indeed one of the great causes of all time and, perhaps as a result, is poorly understood by most.
Yet, what better place to start than with the much misunderstood Adam Smith, who so long ago sketched out the problematic relationship between our selfish pursuit of individual interest, in particular private material gain, and the wider interests of 'the publick' as a whole. 1 How can we achieve collectively satisfactory outcomes when most of us are incapable of rising above our own individual pursuits and selfishness?
Somehow in all societies we know a sense of public good emerges, socially constructed through alchemy few of us would claim entirely to understand. This