Public Interest

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Concept Paper: Public Interest

To claim to hold the public interest is to claim something big. The ambiguity that arises from such a broad concept almost always means that it will have great, and sometimes detrimental, consequences. Because it is a sort of a “je ne sais quoi” (Sorauf – p. 623) of American politics, it is a strong but malleable tool that can be used by anyone who has the audacity to give it a meaning. Frank J. Sorauf, while conceding that no “neat and precise”(p. 616) definition exists, declares that the public the interest signifies “that public policy alternative which most deserves enactment” (p. 616). This broad definition invariably creates many options that can be used to classify each form of the public interest. Sorauf labels them as, “Commonly-Held Value…Wise or Superior Interest…Moral Imperative…Balance of Interest…Undefined.” (pages 619-624). While this complicates the concept, it does so necessarily to encompass all the ways a policy can earn the distinction of being in the public interest. The structure of government, and the particular need it serves in a democracy, elevate the need for a public interest. Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that the main interest of government was to “serve the interests we all have in common” (Held, 1970, p 101). Rousseau wrote that, “If the clashing of private inters has rendered the establishing of societies necessary, the agreement of the same interests has made such establishments possible. It is what is common in these different interest that forms the social bond…it is on the basis of this common interest alone that society must be governed” (p. 39-40). This belief gives the pubic interest a unique and important role in work a government does.

The introduction of the phrasing “public interest” into our political lexicon came in the twentieth century, even though the political theory behind it is centuries older. The idea of the “public good” has evolved into...
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