Public and private interest

John Quig­gin “pro­pos­es a test(link to Ideas and Inter­ests on JQs site)”: for dis­tin­guish­ing whether a pub­lic-inter­est or pri­vate-inter­est the­o­ry of gov­ern­ment is more plau­si­ble. bq. If ideas about the desir­abil­i­ty of pol­i­cy are adjust­ed in response toev­i­dence (cf Keynes — when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?) then the pub­lic inter­est the­o­ry will be valid in the long run. If changes in ideas are deter­mined by the rise and fall of dom­i­nant inter­est groups (as in many Marx­ist mod­els, and in Schum­peter) pri­vate inter­est the­o­ries will be valid in the long run, even though peo­ple may believe them­selves to be act­ing in the pub­lic inter­est My own expe­ri­ence tells me that the hard­est-fought deci­sions made at a polit­i­cal lev­el are dis­trib­u­tive deci­sions in which ideas of a sort play a role. But they are ideas that are not par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to evi­dence. I’m skep­ti­cal that they sus­tain a case for a (pre­dom­i­nant­ly) ‘pub­lic inter­est’ the­o­ry of gov­ern­ment. It would be good to be cer­tain that ideas that inform pol­i­cy change in response to evi­dence. But over and over in dif­fer­ent domains we see that ideas—as frame­works for under­stand­ing the world—change slow­ly and only in a fash­ion-dri­ven or maybe cri­sis-dri­ven way in response to evi­dence that is fre­quent­ly ignored or derid­ed for a long peri­od and, only in ret­ro­spect, even­tu­al­ly comes to be con­sid­ered defin­i­tive. This is the com­mon expe­ri­ence of much sci­en­tif­ic advance: how long did it take for the evi­dence of bac­te­r­i­al vec­tors of dis­ease to become ‘evi­dence’ (about a cen­tu­ry), or for the ellip­ti­cal paths of the plan­ets to be pre­ferred over the impos­si­ble epicy­cloid fan­tasies of Coper­ni­cus (even longer)? The ten­den­cy for ‘evi­dence’ to be invis­i­ble until the ‘chick­en’ of a new the­o­ret­ic frame­work makes it out to be an egg is prob­a­bly clear­est in secu­ri­ty intel­li­gence dis­cov­er­ies: how long did it take for the open and repeat­ed evi­dence of the malig­ni­ty of Bin Laden’s cells to be even vis­i­ble to the US or UK intel­li­gence ser­vices more con­cerned with oth­er threats and more com­fort­able with oth­er expla­na­tions? The dis­in­ter­est of opin­ion in evi­dence that requires a revi­sion of impor­tant ideas/theories can be seen, pos­i­tive­ly, of course, as a sort of nec­es­sary fil­ter mech­a­nism: sav­ing us from the bur­dens of con­tin­u­al revi­sion of shared frame­works of under­stand­ing and dia­logue. We’d be trapped in inde­ci­sion if we had to break off to chase every odd evi­den­tiary rab­bit down it’s the­o­ret­i­cal bur­row. But whether jus­ti­fied by this prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion or not, the iner­tia of most pub­lic pol­i­cy frame­works makes me very skep­ti­cal about the impact of intel­lec­tu­al ideas on poli­cies. I think its much more like­ly that most of the Ideas (with a cap­i­tal ‘I&#8217)we say are influ­en­tial (such as, for exam­ple, fem­i­nism, fed­er­al­ism, sus­tain­abil­i­ty) are just tem­po­rary, local direc­tions: fash­ion­able, intrigu­ing for a while and colourable. But not fun­da­men­tal. Why don’t young adults stop smok­ing now that they know the dan­ger and the gov­ern­ment makes it graph­i­cal­ly clear to them? I sus­pect that the rea­sons are obvi­ous to all of us: the intel­lec­tu­al evi­dence of health risk is trumped by a big­ger and more moti­va­tion­al idea. The ideas that have a big and sus­tained impact on pol­i­cy are those that moti­vate peo­ple to vote (where it is option­al) or donate to caus­es, go to war or endan­ger their health by risky behav­ior. G.K. Chester­ton (I am reluc­tant to acknowl­edge) cor­rect­ly not­ed that the ideas that real­ly have a sus­tained impact are those that are ade­quate­ly rep­re­sent­ed by a near­ly emp­ty sym­bol like a flag: they are atavis­tic ideas like equi­ty, fra­ter­ni­ty, lib­er­ty etc. It’s arguable, I think, that it’s some­thing like the idea of lib­er­ty that trumps the hor­ror-adver­tis­ing about smok­ing. Some­times these moti­vat­ing ideas wear the appear­ance of a fash­ion­able idea: how much of the attrac­tion of fem­i­nism is a pow­er­ful appeal to ‘fair play’? They don’t turn up overt­ly in pol­i­cy debates all that often, thank god, or we’d prob­a­bly be at war more often than we are. But they erupt some­times in the strangest con­texts: I sus­pect that despite the often not­ed fre­quen­cy of divorce, the idea of (het­ero­sex­u­al) mar­riage is one such an atavist idea in the USA (and maybe in Aus­tralia) whose defense is inevitable and will not pro­vide any­one with a dis­tin­guish­able cam­paign plat­form. What fills the inter­stices between erup­tions of gen­uine­ly moti­vat­ing ideas into polit­i­cal debate? In my view: pri­vate inter­est. That’s what I and many oth­er ‘pub­lic-pol­i­cy advo­cates” do for a liv­ing: we posi­tion a pri­vate inter­est in the spec­trum of cur­rent exchanges that are filled with received ideas about pol­i­cy. What the French call ‘le dis­cours’. We argue for fund­ing for infra­struc­ture projects on the basis of respect for the prin­ci­ples of fed­er­al­ism or the elim­i­na­tion of trade bar­ri­ers on the basis of eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy etc. etc. But these ideas fre­quent­ly seem to me to be less impor­tant for their con­tent than for their role as ges­tures: they help to define clients, form alliances. It’s a dis­course of the elites, of course. You can’t jus­ti­fy a free­way to the pun­ters on the basis of town-plan­ning (it has to be some­thing like ‘equity&#8217). But the con­sen­sus of dif­fer­ent elites—however dri­ven at the mar­gin by the lat­est fash­ion­able idea—is the bat­tle­ground over which most short-run dis­trib­u­tive con­tests are fought. All this, too, will pass. When Keynes said that in the long-run we’re all dead, he only meant you and me. None of us believes that the world will end when we do: each of us hopes, some­how, that he or she will make a dif­fer­ence in the long-run even after we’re dead. That’s the sort of much big­ger idea that moti­vates all of us and, in the long-run, is the most polit­i­cal­ly effective.

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