The Causes of Human Rights Violations (17): Private Interests and the General Interest

What kind of state do we desire? What kind of education for our children and for the children of the future? What kind of health care, not just for ourselves but for all citizens? How will we leave the environment for future generations? These questions and many others concern us all, no matter which private interests we have and which interest groups we belong to.

Unfortunately, it looks like the first objective of politics today is not to serve the general interest but to serve a variety of private interests expressed by pressure groups whose support the government must buy by way of special benefits, simply because it cannot retain its supporters when it refuses to give them something it has the power to give, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek.

But not only governments and legislators are forced into this. Groups in society quickly understand that the best they can do is to play the game and try to win as many benefits as possible, otherwise they end up paying for the benefits of the rest of the population. We find ourselves in a vicious circle in which

  • politicians are forced to grant interest groups special benefits, simply because they can and because they would lose voters if they refused
  • interest groups are forced to ask for special benefits if they don’t want to end up as the only suckers paying for the benefits of others
  • different interest groups are out-asking each other because otherwise they end up paying more than they get
  • politicians are forced to give more because people ask more, but also have to tax more because the money has to come from somewhere
  • interest groups are forced to ask more to compensate for the heavier taxes
  • etc.

Of course, this is a libertarian dystopia which fortunately doesn’t quite work out the same way in reality. But it serves the purpose of highlighting the risks of interest group politics.

Given these risks, it’s unfortunate that politics in most democratic countries is so much focused on private interests. The majorities that do exist are not inspired by a general interest or by a common will to achieve something that will benefit society as a whole. They are no more than collections of different pressure groups which have all been promised benefits in exchange for their votes. These pressure groups can be certain states or provinces, whose representative will only vote for a proposal when he or she gets something in return which benefits the locals. Or they can be a certain profession, a religious group or whatever.

As a result, people do not see themselves as a community that can identify with the state and with politics. They only identify themselves with a particular interest group (or with several different interest groups, depending on the types of private interests that they want to see protected), and they see politics as an instrument to fulfill their interests or as a warehouse of advantages ready to be looted by whoever comes first.

This makes effective common actions and actions that serve the general interest very difficult if not impossible. Any vote on something that is of general interest – e.g. healthcare reform – can only pass if a series of private interests are satisfied at the same time. And again we have a vicious circle here. If the state cannot prove itself as a vehicle for common action and for the general interest, then people will not be encouraged to fall back on their private interests. Only successful common action can enable people to transcend fragmentation, to escape decomposition, to identify with the political community and to think of the state as something else than a loot. On the other hand, if the meaning of this political community is diluted, then it is very difficult to mobilize people for a common action, in the words of Charles Taylor.

This focus on private interests and sub-communities is completely different from the way in which the Ancient Greeks for example reflected on politics. In the Greek city states, the inhabitants of border regions were not allowed to participate in a vote concerning a declaration of war with neighboring countries. It was assumed that these inhabitants were unable to vote in accordance with the general interest. Their immediate private interest would inhibit a reasonable reflection on the general interest. In this case, some legitimate private interest where neglected. But today we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other.

Of course, there ‘s nothing wrong with self-interest as such. A conception of the general interest that is established without the cooperation of everybody or that is incompatible with the interests of a majority is likely to cause resistance. And also the interests of the minority are important. The basic interests of the minority are expressed in human rights which can’t be overridden by a democratic majority. We have to start from self-interest, but we do not have to end there. A general interest is always a reformulation of self-interest. And it’s this reformulation through political debate that is often missing, and politics tends to be  a mere sum of or a compromise between private interests.

However, the other extreme is also a risk. Exaggerating the importance of the general interest can be very dangerous as well. Those who have witnessed nazism or communism—or both—can testify to this. The general interest — whatever it is — can justify oppression because it can require the sacrifice of “small” private interests which hinder the development of the community, of the race etc.

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