The public interest can be defined as what a certain community pursues, thinking of its own benefit. It is usually accompanied by state action.
The public interest is a very open and indeterminate concept. It depends on a multitude of variables and, in some cases, it is totally subjective.
In general, we consider it as what a group of people pursues, be it a community, society, region, State or a group of them. We say that it is usually accompanied by state action, since public institutions are the representatives of the citizens, and this is the most orderly and efficient way to pursue actions for the benefit of all.
It should be noted that it is a concept applied to the collective, the public interest is the interest of a group of people. That is why it can marginalize and exclude individuals who do not share this interest.
It is also a very relative concept. How do we know that this interest is truly what the community wants? Or rather, are the measures adopted that are going to achieve this interest? Let’s look at a brief example.
It is known that the public interest is that a necessary good such as housing is cheaper, but how do we get it?
This is when the different political parties and forces come into play. For some, the solution will be the intervention and regulation of the market, setting maximum prices. For others, the construction of houses to ensure a greater supply and lower prices.
That said, it may be that the public interest is well defined, but the way in which it is achieved is not the same depending on the interests of each political side.
The public interest and the law
This intention of seeking the general interest is legally embodied in the constitutions of some countries. For example, the 1991 Constitution of Colombia states, in article 1, that one of the foundations of the country is the general interest.
Article 128 of the Spanish Constitution states that all the wealth of the country is subordinate to the general interest. Thus justifying the tool of expropriation, the intervention of companies or the reservation of economic sectors for the public sector.
Article 40 of the Political Constitution of Guatemala states that the expropriation of private property may be due to reasons of collective utility, social benefit or public interest.
As these articles collect the existence of this interest, the Public Administrations are in charge of executing and protecting it. The only counter-power available to citizens to this criterion is that of the judges. Going to court in case of damage is the only tool available to citizens in the event that they are adversely affected by state decisions.
Public interest benefits
The fact that there is a general interest that the institutions ensure has also brought numerous successes and advances. Universal access to health and education is an example of this.
Also the security policy: the fight against crime and terrorism are in the public interest and it is convenient and desirable to organize against it.
The same goes for defense. The existence of an army that protects the country’s borders against foreign attacks is something that citizens as a whole demand.
The public interest and political ideologies
The public interest, as we mentioned at the beginning, depends on who interprets it. Thus, each political force will understand it in a different way. It should be noted that many ideologically opposed parties can define this interest in the same way, but they do not share the solutions they propose to achieve it.
Dividing the political parties along the traditional left-right axis, the parties more oriented to the left will bet on state intervention as a means to achieve this interest. On the contrary, the right-wing parties will implement interventionist measures in the social sphere, but liberal in the economic sphere.
Let’s see some examples of what is described.
All the political forces of a country agree that it is in the general interest to end unemployment; fight against the adverse effects of drugs on the population; end the economic crisis; and provide an optimal security environment. However, depending on the political force, the measures proposed by them to achieve these objectives will vary.
Liberalism opposes this idea of public interest, since it defends that each individual has his own personal interest and that the general interest derives from the individual. Therefore, the State cannot submit any individual to enforce the collective’s designs. On the contrary, communism consists of imposing the decisions of the masses on the rest of the groups, however despicable it may be against the rest of society.
Criticism of the public interest
In addition to liberal criticism, we find the crimes committed by autocratic regimes. Regimes such as the Nazi or the Soviet carried out numerous crimes against humanity in the name of the public interest.
The Germany of the III Reich defined that this interest was the German supremacy in the world and the extermination of ethnic groups, races and groups such as Jews, Russians, gypsies, homosexuals, etc. This brought with it the outbreak of World War II and the Holocaust.
For its part, the USSR believed that the general interest was to end any figure of power other than the party, the destruction and expropriation of private property and the real equality of the entire population. What produced millions of deaths from famines and murders of opponents of the revolution.
That is why the public interest must always be formulated with respect for the freedom of each individual.