PUBLIC INTEREST THEORY
AND ITS PROBLEMS
Living adults share, we must believe, the same public interest. For them,
however, the public interest is mixed with, and is often put at odds with,
their private and special interests. Put this way, we can say that the
public interest may be presumed to be what men would choose if they
saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently.
—WALTER LIPPMANN, The Public Philosophy
One commonly held distinction between government and market organizations is that government should work in the “public interest” (Appleby 1952; Flathman 1966). It is not only citizens who expect public interested government (Goodsell 2003), so do public managers (Perry 1996; Crewson 1997; Wittmer 1991). Yet, despite the convergence of citizens' and public managers' views about the importance of the public interest in government service, there is little agreement about the meaning of the public interest, either in general or as applied to particular issues and controversies. Essayist and journalist Walter Lippman's definition of the public interest, perhaps the best known, gives some insight into the problems of using the concept, but, as do so many other definitions of the public interest, provides little practical guidance. Were one to take Lippman's definition as a starting point for public policy, one would be stymied.
This chapter has two major objectives. First, to examine some of the dominant ideas of public interest theory and to consider how they relate to one another, and second, to examine the recent intellectual history of public interest theory, paying particular attention to two questions: “Why did public interest theory begin to buckle under its critics' assaults?” and, perhaps even more interesting, “Why does public interest theory, despite the ebb and flow of intellectual fashions and despite powerful criticisms against it, nevertheless have continuing appeal?”
As noted in chapter 1, nearly fifty years have passed since the relentless criticisms of behaviorally oriented political scientists derailed the formal study of the