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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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.

Put simply; to be in the public interest a matter might have the potential to adversely affect any person at any time in their life in any situation if a core matter is not put into the public arena or handled in a more reasonable way when the problem clearly becomes evident as symptomatic of an underlying unreasonableness.

Another problem in defining the public interest is that actions deemed to be in the public interest might lead to perverse incentives and moral hazards.. In addition, at times there is disagreement over whether acts are beneficial or not (benefit being itself with reference to a value or goal)- thus even agreeing on one or other definition, the public good of an act may not be determined with universal agreement

Rather than as an absolute, the public interest is often defined relative to the concept of a private or individual interest. It is possible for acts in the public interest to be bad for given individuals 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.

There is wide-ranging debate involving public interest. For instance whether the public interest requires or, alternatively, 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 when these decrease net public interest. The public interest is thus a crucial, if ill-defined, concept in much political philosophy.

The unit of calculation of the public benefit is also debatable. Under utilitarian perspectives, public interest must be calculated with regard to the interests of its members. It is also likely that, in at least some cases, advancing the public interest will harm certain private interests. This risks the "tyranny of the majority" in democracies without a constitution, bill of rights or similar protections, since minorities' interests may be overridden. As all individuals are "minorities" in one or more capacities, protection of minority or individual 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 libel suits in the United Kingdom) and an exemption from certain laws or regulations (for instance freedom of information laws in the UK).

Also, judges in common law systems can make judgements on the grounds of public policy, a related term.

See also

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