On Zeitgeist and Public Interest

Speech by Johan Norberg, held at the 5th CEPROM/ECAEF Conference in Monaco, 9. Dec 2021

“The public good is not to be considered if it is to be purchased at the expense of the individual.”
Lord Acton (1834-1902)

The idea of some sort of common good or public interest as the goal of and guide for practical politics is as old as statehood itself. In various guises it is used by politicians and administrators as a source of legitimacy. But there is no clear definition of public interest, and its meaning keeps shifting with the intellectual winds, with the Zeitgeist. Therefore, a term that once had a restrictive function now has taken on a permissive function. A conceptual shield against what Aristotle and Locke saw as tyrannical government, is now wielded as a weapon, to authorise any kind of government intervention.
What is in the public interest?

“The public interest”, wrote David Hume, “becomes the source of great dissentions, by reason of the different opinions of particular persons concerning it”. F. A. Hayek concluded that “common welfare or the public good has to the present time remained a concept most recalcitrant to any precise definition and therefore capable of being given almost any content suggested by the interest of the ruling group.”

And not just classical liberal thinkers worry about its vagueness. As a modern guide to the concept for public administrators puts it …

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On the Zeitgeist and the Public Interest