Public Values and Public Interest: Counterbalancing Economic Individualism

By Barry Bozeman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
PUBLIC VALUES

The very existence of society depends on the fact that every member of it
tacitly admits he is not the exclusive possessor of himself.

—T. H. HUXLEY, Collected Essays I: Method and Results

While public interest as ideal provides a good starting point for public affairs deliberation, any move from deliberation to action requires a tangible concept. “Public value” serves well in this capacity. Since its introduction in chapter 1 public value has not received much attention. As used here, “public values” are those providing normative consensus about (a) the rights, benefits, and prerogatives to which citizens should (and should not) be entitled; (b) the obligations of citizens to society, the state, and one another; and (c) the principles on which governments and policies should be based.

As noted in chapter 1, the chief concern in this book is with a society's or a nation's public values. However, it is certainly the case that individuals hold public values. Public value can operate at the level of the individual for much the same reason that altruism can operate at the individual level. Citizens can hold a public value that is not the same as their own self-interested private value. Thus an individual may hold a preference for high-quality public education even if he or she is unlikely to benefit personally and even if it will require him or her to pay more taxes. When octogenarians who do not have grandchildren vote higher millage, it is not because they expect personally to benefit from improved education. Similarly, one may have a self-interested value in privately saving for one's retirement to ensure a high standard of living during retirement, while at the same time supporting public policies that ensure some sort of minimal social security provision for others. When the wealthy vote for Social Security, they do not expect personal benefit upon retirement, but do expect public value of such policies.

When older people vote to spend their resources on children's education or when the rich support Social Security, is this a matter of altruism or enlightened self-interest? Generally, are public values “more altruistic” than private values? One could argue, for example, that people who choose to pay higher millage rates or vote for Social Security benefits when they will not

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