The Public Good Trap

Why thinking that the public good is the measure of law and politics is a mistake

The rhetoric of public good has always been part of legal discourse; even scholars who are, one might think, hard-boiled legal positivists are surprisingly sympathetic to the idea that law inherently serves the public interest, as are, of course, the positivists’ critics and opponents. Mark Elliott and Robert Thomas capture this sentiment in their textbook Public Law, which I have just finished reading as I prepare to teach in the United Kingdom starting next month. Professors Elliott and Thomas write:

In a democracy, citizens elect a government to protect, advance, and serve the public interest. In normative terms, democratic governance presupposes that government acts as the servant—rather than the master—of the people. There are two dimensions to this notion that good governance means (among other things) governing in the public interest. The positive dimension is that government should make decisions that advance the public good. … Governing in the public interest has a second, negative dimension. Government must not act in a self-interested manner. (Ca. 401; paragraph breaks removed; emphasis in the original)

I suspect that most people, of all kinds of political and ideological persuasions would view this as correct and indeed uncontroversial. But for my part I do not, and indeed I think that the things that Professors Elliott and Thomas themselves say, and the examples they use, expose the difficulties with this argument.

Two things, though, before I go further. First, to be very clear, I do not mean to pick on Professors Elliott and Thomas. I just happened to be reading their book (and I might have more to say about it soon), and thought that it was representative of what strikes me as a pervasive problem with the way people think and talk about these issues. And second, I think that Professors Elliott and Thomas are right to say, just before the passage quoted above, that “[g]overnments have no legitimate interests of their own, and nor, when acting in their official capacities, do the individuals who lead and work in governments”. This might be a more controversial thing to say than the claim that government must serve the public interest, but if it is true it must, then I don’t think there is any room for a raison d’État independent of the public interest.


But what about the main claim? Why wouldn’t governments need to work in the public interest? How, indeed, could it be otherwise? Well, consider what Professors Elliott and Thomas also say by way of explaining the “positive dimension” of the public interest:

The public good is a highly contestable notion. Concepts such as good governance and the public good are not objective yardsticks against which the legitimacy of governmental action can be determined. … In a democracy, the ultimate question is not whether the government is acting in an objectively correct way (whatever that might mean); rather, it is whether it is governing in a manner that is regarded as broadly acceptable by the public. Elections are the pre-eminent means of doing this. … There are [in addition] a number of different ways that enable or require government to take account of the views and wishes of the people: the need to obtain parliamentary approval of legislative proposals; submission to scrutiny by Parliament, the media, courts, tribunals, and ombudsmen; and public participation in government decision-making (eg by consulting with the public). (Ca. 401)

So: citizens elect governments to serve the public interest, but we can’t actually tell what the public interest is, and the only measure we have is the outcomes of elections and other processes, largely (except, arguably, for scrutiny by courts and tribunals) political ones too. And when you start factoring in political ignorance, the role of special interests in non-electoral accountability mechanisms (and, to a lesser extent, in elections too), the difficulty of interpreting electoral outcomes… the idea that any of it has anything to do with a discernable set of parameters we might usefully describe as the public interest disappears like a snowflake in a blizzard.

The example Professors Elliott and Thomas give makes my case, not theirs. According to them,

it is a relatively uncontentious proposition that, when using public resources—especially public money—government should, so far as possible, seek to attain value for money. Government is largely funded by the public through taxation. Accordingly, the public can, in turn, rightfully expect that government should not waste its money. (Ca. 401)

I think it’s true that, if you just start asking people in the street whether government should “seek to attain value for money”, they will say that of course it should. The trouble is that, if you start asking some follow-up questions, it will quickly turn out that people don’t really mean it. Many people believe, for instance, that government should only, or at least preferentially, do business with suppliers from its own country. The entire point of such policies, of course, is to override the concern for getting value for public money ― they wouldn’t be necessary otherwise. Others (or perhaps the same people) believe that governments should allow, and perhaps even encourage, their employees to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. Again, the point of such policies is to override the preference for value for money: unionized labour is definitionally more expensive than its non-unionized counterpart.

For my purposes here, it doesn’t matter that such preferences are wrongheaded, although they certainly are. What matters is that, wrong though they are, people hold such preferences. As a result, even something as seemingly uncontroversial as the idea that government should get the best bang for the taxpayer buck turns out not to be consistent with how many people understand the public interest ― in the polling booth. In words, they will keep complaining about government inefficiency. In other words, it’s not just that different people and different groups can’t agree on what the public good is and we have no way of extracting any real meaning from the procedures they use to resolve their disagreements; it’s also that a single individual is quite likely not to have any sort of workable view of what the public interest is or requires.

For similar reasons, the “negative dimension” of the public good as articulated by Professors Elliott and Thomas fares no better. They argue that “it would be improper for an elected public body—whether the UK central government, a devolved government, or a local authority—to elevate political gain above the public good”. (Ca. 401; emphasis in the original) But if there is no such thing as the public good, objectively understood, then how can we sensibly claim that a public authority is elevating political gain above this non-existent yardstick? Worse, if the public good is to be assessed based in part on electoral outcomes, then doesn’t it follow that the pursuit of electoral success and the pursuit of the public good are one and the same?


What follows from this? Some would say that we should accept revelation and authority as our guides to the meaning of the common good, as a solution to the empty proceduralism of which they would no doubt see the argument of Professors Elliott and Thomas as representative. But such people have no means of persuading anyone who does not already trust their revelation and their authorities. Many of them recognize this and have given up on persuasion entirely. Like Lenin, they think that a revolutionary vanguard would be warranted in imposing their vision on the rest of us.

If we are disinclined to Leninism, I would suggest that we should shift our expectations and ambitions, for politics, for public law, and indeed for law tout court. Instead of looking to them to produce or uphold the public good, we ought to focus on how they can protect private rights, as the US Declaration of Independence suggests.

This is not an unambitious vision for politics and law, by the way. It is difficult enough to agree on a list of such rights that public institutions can and should enforce, and to work out the mechanisms for enforcing them without compromising other rights in the process. What is, for instance, the extent of property rights? Should it be defined entirely through the political process or should we make property rights judicially enforceable? If we set up police forces to (among other things) protect property, how do we prevent them from engaging in unjustified violence? Those are difficult enough questions, and the pursuit of even more intractable ones under the banner of the public good largely detracts us from paying attention to them.

Common Factionalism

The political rhetoric of the common good is poorly disguised factionalism, which the thinkers in whose name it is being advanced would have abhorred

The idea that law and politics should be organized around the principle of the “common good” is in the air on the political right. The left, of course, has had its versions of it for a long time. Both co-blogger Mark Mancini and I have written about “common good” arguments about legal issues, specifically the administrative state (Mark), constitutional law (me), and the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” (also me), and found them severely wanting. A couple of recent newspaper articles give us an idea of what the “common good” philosophy looks like in practical politics.

On the northern side of the world’s longest closed border, Ginny Roth, writing in the National Post, identifies the Conservative platform in the late and lamented election with “a rich tradition of common-good conservatism that looks more like Edmund Burke than John Locke”. The master idea of this “new conservatism” (wait, is it new or richly traditional? never mind) is that “Conservatives must be positioned to build on the coalition of voters that will support it in this election by correctly identifying what appealed to them about the leader, the party and the platform”. Less blandly, “the left must not have a monopoly on populist politics”. The right should imitate the left, and in doing so advance the policies favoured, or assumed to be favoured, by “coalitions of voters who think the opposite of what the cocktail party goers do”. 

The same ideas, if that’s what they are, are to be found south of the aforementioned border in Josh Hammer’s column in Newsweek. (Mr. Hammer, it is worth noting, is one of if not the closest thing the “common good” movement has to a leader. He is also, apparently, a research fellow with an outfit called the Edmund Burke Foundation.) Mr. Hammer defends bans on private businesses requiring their employees or customers to be vaccinated against the present plague. In doing so, he claims to take the side of “common-good-inspired figures” against “the more adamantly classical liberal, libertarian-inspired pundits and politicians who believe the quintessence of sound governance is simply permitting individuals and private entities to do what they wish”. Mr. Hammer “explains” that “[v]accine mandates will be a convenient fig leaf for a ruling class already gung-ho at the possibility of precluding conservatives from the full panoply of in-person public life”. (Why is that the defenders of tradition so often struggle with their native tongue?) This “wokeist ruling class” must be stopped by a “prudential use of state power to secure the deplorables’ basic way of life”.


With apologies to H.L. Mencken, “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” seems to be an excellent description of common good conservatism, as propounded by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. The common people are entitled to get their way, and to have the state’s coercive force used to ensure that they get their way. And no need to ask whether their preferences are consonant with some objective standards of morality, or the teachings of experts ― be it in economics, in epidemiology, or what have you. The beliefs of the common people are entitled to prevail because they are their beliefs, not because they are right.

Of course, it’s only the common people, that is, the right kind of people, that are entitled to have their way. The woke cocktail-swilling pundits and politicians are not. Even entrepreneurs, whom the conservatives of yesteryear lionized, must take their orders from those who do not drink cocktails. In other words, what Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer are promoting under the name of the common good is the view that the aim of politics is to give effect to the wishes of

a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

This is James Madison’s famous definition of faction, in Federalist No. 10. Ms. Roth might not have, but Mr. Hammer, who affects to be a constitutional sage as well as a political visionary, presumably has read the Federalist Papers. He’s read them, and has evidently concluded that he is cleverer than Madison, who feared faction as the seed of tyranny, civil strife, and destruction, and looked for ways to limit its ill-effects.

Madison saw the remedy in “[a] republic, … a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. A “republic”, so understood, would

refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

Not so for Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. Not for them the refining and enlargement of public views by representatives. (It’s the cocktails, don’t you know?) The people themselves, and more precisely the “deplorables”, the ones whose views are the opposite of refined and enlarged, who must govern, and officials are to take their marching orders from them.

Poor Edmund Burke is spinning in his grave. His single most famous idea is doubtless the argument he advanced in his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol”, which deserves to be quoted at length here:

Certainly … it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But, his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy Colleague says, his Will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If Government were a matter of Will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But Government and Legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination; and, what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one sett of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

The populism masquerading as “common good” conservatism being peddled by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer is the opposite not only of John Locke’s ideas and James Madison’s, but also of the deeply held views of the great man they dishonour by pretending to admire him.


I should note that there a more purely intellectual and, not coincidentally, intellectually respectable version of the “common good” thought. For the reasons some of which I set out more fully in my earlier posts, I don’t find it compelling. But, at its best, it does involve an honest reflection on the good of the community rather than window-dressing for factionalism. Michael Foran speaks from this perspective when he tweets that “[t]he Common Good shouldn’t be used as the new phrase for whatever political position one happens to already hold. A claim that X is in the common good needs to explain how X is both genuinely good and genuinely common in its goodness.”

As it happens, Adrian Vermeule (among others) has recently shared his thoughts on vaccine mandates with Bari Weiss, and they are not at all in line with Mr. Hammer’s. Along with much sniping at libertarians (does he think Mr. Hammer is one?), he argues that “the vaccine mandate is analogous in principle to … crisis measures” such as wartime conscription or the destruction of property to stop a fire: “[o]ur health, our lives and our prosperity, are intertwined in ways that make it entirely legitimate to enforce precautions against lethal disease — even upon objectors”.

The point is not really that Professor Vermeule is right (which I’m inclined to think he is, albeit not quite for the reasons he advances), and Mr. Hammer is wrong. It’s not even that their disagreement exposes the vacuity of the common good as a standard against which to measure policy (though it at least points in that direction). For my present purposes, it’s that the partisan version of the “common good” ideology, which Mr. Hammer and Ms. Roth represent, has next to nothing to do with its more cerebral namesake exemplified by Professor Vermeule’s comments to Ms Weiss. In its partisan incarnation, common good talk is nothing more than a fig-leaf meant to hide ― none too well, mind you ― the narcissism and cultural resentment that its promoters impute to a part of the electorate.