Democracy and the Public Interest

Politicians talk incessantly about the ‘public interest’. Indeed, the term is used so frequently that it seems to have a kind of prima facie legitimacy. The problem is that there is actually no such thing. The term is an illusion and one deployed for clandestine purposes. It is designed to make us feel, if we disagree with the proposed policies, that the government knows our interests better than we do ourselves.

Statue of Edmund Burke in Washington DC. Copyright Michael Rozzo.

Statue of Edmund Burke in Washington DC. Copyright Michael Rozzo.

The problem with the ‘public interest’ begins with nature of democracy and the difference between ‘direct’ and ‘representational’ democracy. In order for there to be a ‘public interest’, there must be some way for us all to come to an agreement about what is in our interest and what is not. Unfortunately, the whole reason that we have representational democracies is due to the impossibility of deciding on such a thing.

The term ‘democracy’ has its origins in two Greek words: ‘demos’ (the people) and ‘kratia’ (power or rule). It is therefore, ‘rule by the people’. It is important to note that ‘the people’ means the whole political population of a given sovereign territory, not some of the people within it. It ultimately means that everyone in the political community takes an active or direct role in governance.

Democracy is a form of governance that works very well for small groups of like minded people and which delivers a high degree of equity: everybody has their say on every decision that is made. In a democracy, we can speak about ‘public interest’ as it is formed when all members of the group make a decision that they all agree upon.

It does not take much, however, for this ‘public interest’ to break down. For example, if the members of even a small group have very diverse interests, it can be very difficult for them to make decisions that are in all their interests. Even if one or two members of the group disagree with a proposition, how can we speak of the ‘public interest’? When it comes to large groups with diverse interests, then it becomes truly impracticable.

This is where the concept of ‘representational democracy’ comes in: instead of each member of the group having input directly on each issue, they elect representatives whose role is to govern in their interests.

People often think that ‘democracy’ and ‘representational democracy’ have a relationship like the concepts ‘cat’ and Siamese cat’, i.e. that the latter is a particular species of the former. This is not the case. Representational democracy is not a species of democracy; in fact, it is not really democracy at all. We can only have a democracy, which some people refer to now as ‘direct democracy’, when the people govern themselves. In a representational democracy, it is representatives that govern. Yes, we might say, but it is closer to the rule of the people than the rule of a tyrant or a monarch, in other words, it is the closest that we can practically get to democracy.

The problem is that it gives us a sense of power and freedom that we do not really have. We like to think that our power to represent our own views extends beyond casting a vote every three years or so. We like to think that we can make our views heard and have them acted upon by our representatives – the representative’s very reason for being is to serve our interests.

Once elected, however, our representatives are free to act in accordance with their own desires. We have our say on the decisions that they make, but they are made independently. Representatives can choose to listen to the public to whatever degree they like. There are certainly some politicians that believe, as Edmund Burke did, that certain people are simply better suited to rule than others, and that they know, as such, the public interest better than the public itself.

Given that they do rely on public support in order to be reelected, the decisions that they make will be made in relation to public’s interests in some way, but it does not necessarily mean that they will be made in accordance with them. The interests of industry lobbyists and public institutions also determine the particular decisions that representatives make.

It is thus the case that while we all get one vote in electing our representatives, it does not mean that our ability to exercise influence is equal. The corporation, for example, is interesting insofar it is an entity that has many of the same legal rights as we do as individuals. If we think of corporations as beings with agency just as we have, we can see that their influence far exceeds our own.

The interest served by our representatives is not the public interest, but the interests of whoever or whatever is able to exert the most influence, pressure or leverage. This is the sad reality of politics in representative democracies. The term the ‘public interest’ is a way of selling policies to the public and nothing more.