Altruism and the “Public Interest”

No matter which party or politician backs a particular piece of legislation, its advocates nearly always proclaim that it serves the “public interest.” And opponents are just as quick to claim that the legislation is harmful to the public interest. The Keystone XL pipeline serves as an example.

For years, the pipeline was a controversial issue. Critics claimed that the pipeline did not serve the public interest. Jane Kleeb, president of the Bold Alliance, one of the Keystone XL’s leading opponents, told the Nebraska Public Utility Commision, “We have the evidence on our side that this pipeline does not meet the public interest of Nebraska.” Proponents responded that the pipeline would reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East and create jobs—both of which it argued was in the public interest. Union members favored building the pipeline.

But attorney Brian Jorde said, “The main question is not farmers versus union members. We also support union members and jobs. The threshold question is: Is this project in the public interest of Nebraska? And it’s not.” Which side is correct? Is the pipeline in the “public interest” or not?

While both sides bickered over what is and isn’t in the “public interest,” neither bothered to define what constitutes the “public interest.” And Keystone is hardly the only example. The reason that nobody bothers to define the “public interest” is quite simple—the term can’t be defined.

The American public consists of more than 330 million people. Some are gay and some are straight. Some are male and some are female. Some are white and some are Hispanic, black, Asian, and other ethnicities or races. Some are Christian, some are Jewish, some are Muslim, and some are atheists. Some like baseball and some like ballet. In short, the American public is not monolithic. It consists of individuals with a wide range of characteristics, values, and interests. To proclaim that a particular policy or program serves the “public interest” is to ignore this vast diversity of values and interests.

As the author Peter Schwartz writes in In Defense of Selfishness, the advocates of altruism

promote the notion of the “public interest”—a term with no clear definition, but with one unmistakable function: to make altruism seem practical. They aim to instill in us the vague sense that it is to our advantage to serve others, when those others are the so-called public. They want us to believe that since we are all a part of society, we all benefit in some way by making sacrifices in the name of the public interest. (page 67)

This is precisely what happened in regard to Keystone. And it happens daily all across the country.

In practice, the “public interest” means that the interests of some individuals take precedence over the interests of others. Some individuals will be forced to sacrifice for the alleged benefit of others.

Collectivism turns virtually every policy debate into a war between groups, each claiming that it represents the “public interest.” The unquestioned acceptance of altruism means that policy debates are ultimately a battle over who will be forced to sacrifice and who will collect the benefits.

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