Front Page Titles (by Subject) Common Good & Public Interest - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
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Common Good & Public Interest - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Common Good & Public Interest
“The Common Good and The Public Interest.” Political Theory 8(February 1980):103–118.
Douglass attempts to distinguish between the common good and the public interest. The two were originally separate but have now come together.
Traditionally, the common good was the chief political goal of the state. The common good consisted of a number of specific objectives designed to promote human well-being, and government was thought to have a crucial role in promoting such objectives. The common good was common because its benefits obtained for all and because they were shared benefits (not reducible to individual advantage even though all benefitted). The common good was good in the objective sense, not in the subjective sense. Also, the common good was considered above the individual good; however in a well-functioning society, like in an organism, these two goods were in harmony. In times of conflict the common good took precedence over the individual good. Finally, in the traditional view the notion of the common good involves a paternalistic view of political authority: the government defined the common good and educated the citizenry in its meaning. Rulers could intervene in the society to protect the common good whenever it appeared private initiative was not doing the job.
The notion of the public interest arose with the breakdown of feudalism and the rise of the nation state. Since the common good tended to be identified with the interests of the crown in foreign adventures, the idea fell into disrepute. Opponents of the crown adopted the banner of “interest.” Though the idea of the public interest need not be identified with a mere agglomeration of individual interests those who used the concept did tend to have a individualist view of the public interest, as well as a subjectivist view of values (derived from Hobbes.)
Today the concept still reflects its history. “Interest” tends to be identified with people's choices or choices they would make if they were informed. Even in the second case, interest is not synonomous with objective well-being. “Public” tends to be identified not with all the members of society, but with the majority or the many. The public interest, then, is today equivalent to the common good. Two types of redefinition would push these concepts together. First, “public” might be redefined, as suggested by Brian Barry, to be equivalent to the common interests of all people in their roles as citizens. Second, a redefinition of “interest” might make it more synonomous with “good.” These redefinitions have three problems: a conclusive argument against noncognivitism in values is needed; second, it is unclear whether the concept of interest can really bear the burden of being redefined in a way that goes radically against conventional usage; and, third, it's not clear whether the redefinition suggests a return to illiberal authoritarianism.
The author ends with a suggestion that a plausible definition of the public interest would be akin to that offered by Walter Lippman: “what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, and acted disinterestedly and benevolently.”