The Libertarian Public Interest
Tibor R. Machan
A particularly irksome rhetorical ploy against the free society’s champions is that they refuse to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the public interest (or public good or general welfare or some such goal). Critics of these champions routinely wag their fingers charging that those who insist that the free society — with its minimal government — is the most just order that has been conceived by political philosophers and economists fail to pay heed to the public interest and focus only on what private citizens want and benefit from. (Their candidate is usually something like profit or personal pleasure!)
I wish to urge that this charge be rejected good and hard. As I have tried to stress on other occasions, the fully free society has a perfectly proper conception of the public interest or good. This is, to put it briefly, the respect for and protection of individual rights. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, governments are instituted so as to secure the protection of the rights of the citizens. And that is exactly what the public interest amounts to in a just society, nothing more.
Given the enormous variety of the citizenry in a free society, what will be the public interest or good will vary accordingly. Since human beings are first and foremost individuals and will pursue a great variety of goals within the country in which they live, the first objective of government or law must be to make sure that everyone’s rights are secure, well protected and elaborated in the legal system. That is what the public interest amounts to; that is why champions of the free society are the bona fide, genuine promoters of the one meaningful public interest, namely, the securement of human liberty!
The public consists of millions of citizens with sometimes minor and other times major variations in what is to their best interest. So that they may pursue their best interest of their own initiative, as a matter of their free choice, their rights must be respected and protected vigilantly and competently. Which is what justifies government or the legal order of a free society. Such a society does not embrace the typical statist, totalitarian, one size fits all conception of the public good. It would be tyrannical to do so since imposing some one conception of the good life on all citizens will require a police state and ignores what human beings are. (To the extent that this is already routine in many societies, they are naturally coercive, statist!)
What is central here is that those who champion the fully free society do in fact have the most sensible, most coherent conception of the public good or interest, namely, a legal order that refuses to deploy just one individual’s or group’s idea of what is right for everyone to do or pursue. The public consists of millions of diverse individuals, often pursuing goals on their own, most often, however, coming together with a bunch of others and engaging in common pursuits but always voluntarily. The legal framework for this is what amounts to the public good or interest, not various “public” programs politicians and bureaucrats happen to select, programs that may indeed be OK for some folks but certainly not for all.
So the bona fide public good or interest is the protection of everyone’s right to liberty so everyone can choose, more or less wisely, to seek his or her own proper ends in life.