In Defense of the Public Interest

04.28.2005 | Henry Stern | Urban Affairs
From NY Civic

One of the points that good-government types like to make is that they represent the general interest, rather than the special interests which are served by self-seekers, who are often antagonistic to reform, radicalism and redistribution.  (Not to be confused with Rev. Samuel D. Burchard’s ill-fated remarks in late October 1884, when, in an address to the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee (piety being an issue then as well as now), he said that the Democratic Party was the party of rum, Romanism and rebellion.  The resulting uproar by Catholics, stoked by Tammany, is credited with securing Grover Cleveland’s narrow victory in New York State over James G. Blaine and with that, the White House.)
It is not easy, however, for honest folk to determine just what is a special interest, or who expresses the general interest, or whether and, if so, when special and general interests conflict.
For example, a labor union speaks for its members and their economic interests, even when their demands conflict with taxpayers’ ability to pay, or the city’s ability to compete with areas with lower costs.  Featherbedders who demand a day’s pay for a half hour’s work, at the old Coliseum or the Javits Center, give labor a bad name.  Unions that are controlled by racketeers, or that pay exorbitant salaries to their officers, or take payoffs from the bosses, are similarly disreputable.
But what about the honest, decent unions, the garment workers organizing the sweatshops a century ago, fighting for fire safety after the Triangle disaster of 1911, teaching their members English, sending their children from the slums to summer camps in the country, struggling for the eight-hour day?  They were a special interest as well, but they were humanitarians whom we admire today.
What about taxpayers, tenants, landlords, pensioners, veterans, welfare recipients, parents, teachers, school custodians, advocates for public spending to fight particular diseases or to serve special populations?  Are they special interests?  Their supporters do not represent the entire population.  They support the needs of their group, and perhaps make alliances with other forces who also demand that more money be spent on their programs.
Then there are the industrialists, small businesspeople, taxpayers, economists, professors and others who seek less public spending, who want lower taxes, who worry about New York State’s place in the national economy, and the hemorrhaging of jobs, downstate and particularly upstate.

Both sides employ skilled writers who disseminate the ideas of their masters, following these rubrics:  Rule 8-FM, “Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.”  That is the keystone of the loyalty triptych.  Rule 8-F is “Do not bite the hand that feeds you”; it alludes to loyalty and food.  Rule 8-M is “He who pays the piper calls the tune”; it involves loyalty and music.  Rule 8-FM, cited above, combines the themes of food and music in a single expression of fealty.  Why are these rules numbered 8?  Simple: each is expressed in eight words.  Enough for today.
Are the unions who are trying to save their members’ jobs at the Hotel Plaza a special interest?  Yes, in a sense.  Are the developers who want to fire the workers and turn the world famous hotel into condos a special interest?  Certainly.  Practically every civic issue — the closing of a firehouse, the siting of a marine transfer station, a radio tower, a zoning change, the building of a particular school or park, as opposed to others — may be viewed as a contest between special interests, or between special and general interests.

The landmarking process is rife with these conflicts.  Whose wishes should be respected? The property owner, who may have bought the building before it was landmarked?  The neighbors, who don’t care if the local church is bankrupt, but want to continue receiving light and air over the roof of the low-rise structure?  The zealots who worship existing buildings, even if they denounced them as ghastly when they were built?  The unions seeking construction jobs even if means the demolition of the Taj Mahal?  Does the workers’ desire to feed their families constitute a special interest?
On the other hand, if you are looking for a real special interest, consider the politicians who keep the New York State election laws so rigid and baffling that they stand as artificial, expensive barriers to public participation in free elections.  The incumbents’ narrow, self-serving desires clearly work against the public interest in open, competitive elections in what is supposed to be a democracy (a Greek word which means that the people rule).
Instead, these highly detailed and technical laws, along with rotten districts, maintain the oligarchy of perennials who populate Albany until they die or go to jail.  Why doesn’t the activist Court of Appeals do something about this outrage, since it has already taken license to mandate the expenditures of tens of billions of dollars no one has raised, without providing any reasonable plan  for the nonexistent funds to be spent effectively?
We conclude that most organized interests are special, in the sense that they are supported by a particular group which would receive benefits if their advocacy succeeds.  Special interests are not intrinsically bad or good.  One weighs their merits on the basis of how their demands support or conflict with one’s view of the more general public interest.

But just what does the general public interest require?  High taxes or low taxes?  An enhanced level of public services or a lower, more affordable level?  Specifically, a cop on every corner, or on every other corner?  Park lawns mowed once a week or once a month?  Fire response times of six minutes or eight minutes? Garbage pick up every other day or every week?  How much does it cost to provide the higher service levels, who will benefit from it and who will be asked to pay for it?

One thing most people believe (although not some public officials) is that there is some waste in government, and that more energy and intelligence should be devoted to eliminating it.  There is no discernible special interest that supports waste for its own sake, at least publicly.  But there are interests that protect jobs even if they are redundant.  Attempts to reduce expenditures are denounced as “balancing the budget on the backs of the workers.”

Under this trope, people are called workers whether or not they actually work.  Granted that most do, but the immunity from discipline that many grasshoppers enjoy has a dispiriting effect on the ants.  The point of Aesop’s fable is that if one does not work, one does not enjoy the benefits of work (in this case, food for the winter).  The ant labors, not only for reward, but because he is biologically programmed to do so.  In public service, however, the grasshopper is fed as well as the ant — better if he has seniority.  Sooner or later, grasshoppers are likely to dominate the workplace, in an industrial version of Gresham’s Law: “bad money drives out good.”
In politics, one must make judgments.  Crooks side with the people who are paying them off with money.  When the payoff is votes, the moral judgment is more complex.  After all, isn’t democracy supposed to reflect the will of the people?  And if a decision is popular, is it necessarily wrong?  My own standard, often applied when I was at Parks and on the City Council, was this: “In the end, they will throw you out.  They already have.  They will again.  I am unlikely to postpone that day by equivocation, rationalization, or surrender of principle.  When it comes, and it will, I want to know that I did the right thing whenever I possibly could.”
Alex Rose (1898-1976), the late, beloved leader of the Liberal Party, told me once, “Always nominate the best candidate you can find.  If you lose, most people will say you did what was right.  If you win, they will say that you are a genius.”
Today, the right thing is not as clear as it was generations ago, when the enemies of justice and fairness were racketeers and, to some extent, Communists.  But those forces have their successors today.  The good guys may not be as clearly defined as once they were.  To paraphrase Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who said so inartfully in Iraq, “You fight with the army you have,” today one relies on people of good will who are less motivated by personal ambition than by the public interest.  There are only so many of them.
We know that ideas vary as to what is the public interest, but there are core values of honesty, integrity and fairness.  We can compare those values with special interests, which can be good or bad, more likely of intermediate value, but principally motivated by the needs and demands of interested parties. The public interest tries to represent those who are not directly involved in a case, but will be affected by its outcome, even if they are unaware of it.

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