- Public interest
The public interest refers to the "common well-being" or "general welfare." The public interest is central to policy debates, politics, democracy and the nature of government itself. While nearly everyone claims that aiding the common well-being or general welfare is positive, there is little, if any, consensus on what exactly constitutes the public interest.
Ambiguities of the concept
There are different views on how many members of the public must benefit from an action before it can be declared to be in the public interest: at one extreme, an action has to benefit every single member of society in order to be truly in the public interest; at the other extreme, any action can be in the public interest as long as it benefits some of the population and harms none.
Another thing is that actions deemed to be in the public interest might lead to
perverse incentives and moral hazards. A recent example is the damaging effect of biofuels on the World food market.
The public interest is often contrasted with the private or individual interest, under the assumption that what is good for society may not be good for a given individual and vice versa. This definition allows us to "hold constant" private interests in order to determine those interests that are unique to the public.
Stephen Krasner, a political scientist used a similar methodology in his book "Defending the National Interest." Krasner identifies cases in which no corporate interest is found in US foreign policy in order to identify and analyze a national interest.
However, society is composed of individuals, and the public interest must be calculated with regard to the interests of its members. There is wide-ranging debate about whether the public interest requires or destroys the idea of
human rights, about the degree to which the ends of society are the ends of its individual members, and the degree to which people should be able to fulfill their own ambitions even against the public interest. The public interest is a crucial, if ill-defined, concept in much political philosophy.
It is also possible that in some cases advancing the public interest will hurt certain private interests. This risks the "tyranny of the majority" in any democracy, since minorities' interests may be overridden. On the other hand, we are all a minority in some capacity - thus, protection of minority rights arguably becomes part of the public interest.
United Kingdom public interest law
In law, public interest is a defence against certain lawsuits (for instance some
libelsuits in the United Kingdom) and an exemption from certain laws or regulations (for instance freedom of informationlaws in the UK).
Also, judges in
common lawsystems can make judgements on the grounds of public policy, a related term.
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