In my opinion, public interest is the most important idea that needs to be addressed in free and democratic societies today. I had written a recent post on this subject and was in the process of writing a follow up when my computer ate my homework (thanks Windows 8.1). We try again! Here’s a few reasons why this subject has my attention:
- First, public interest is still a generally respected and powerful concept that can aid in addressing and reconciling conflicts to various personal freedoms and interests.
- Second, without a firm definition and understanding, its interpretation is left open to those who potentially use the idea to suit their own purposes.
- Third, even when legitimate public interests are present and, overall, indisputably beneficial to the common good, there are those who categorically disagree with such a justification because they believe their personal rights and interests, no matter the degree involved, take precedence.
The second point represents the concern citizens of modern democracies have towards the potential abuse that could come from invoking public interest by its leaders. Yet, to the third point, to what extent, if any, do members of such a society have an obligation to consider public interest in their decisions?
This is an especially valid question when it comes to those who view public interest as one where a majority or even consensus of the community must support a decision before it can proceed. This is problematic in several ways, the third point above included. Another is accounting for everyone that could be affected by such a decision. If too few are given a vote, some people are left outside without a say. Too many raises the difficulty reaching a decision that makes everyone happy.
In the latter case, that difficulty goes up exponentially. Imagine going to a multiplex to see a movie. Deciding which one is easy if you’re by yourself. With a friend, there’d be some discussion. A group of them, a debate. For a neighbourhood, that decision might take just as long as the movie. And so on.
That’s just over a movie, but what if the subject being decided on is more complex?
That difficulty is the reason why, for most decisions, we authorize our leaders, in the case of government, by election, to make them on our behalf, but even that has its rising challenges as we grow more vocal about our opinion. This either leads down to gridlock or to the use of force and/or some form of coercion to make such decisions.
I find it amazing how much fairy tales are ingrained in our culture considering how generally unacceptable it would be for many people to live under an autocratic monarchy system. Yet this is the kind of challenge democracies face these days given the rising global power of single party governments like China whose abuses are countered with its continuing economic growth that has raised the living standards of its people.
The democratic alternative is to improve the criteria by which we make collective decisions and that’s where a better public interest comes in. Not just an understanding by which people agree on, but one which maintains and inspires our individual freedoms and rights while motivating us beyond our self interests.