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.

Moving the Earth

Last week, the Supreme Court issued an important judgment on the law of public interest standing. Although it might seem like a technical issue, the importance of standing, or locus standi, was already clear to Archimedes 2200 years ago, when he asserted that if given a place to stand, he would move the earth. Ok, maybe he didn’t mean that sort of locus standi, and anyway he spoke Greek, not Latin. But in law no less than in physics, if you want to move the earth, you need a place to stand.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45 makes finding one easier. It relaxes, or clarifies, as the Court’s judgment insists, the test courts use to determine whether to grant “public interest” standing to a party who does not have standing―simply put, the right to initiate a lawsuit―to challenge the legality or constitutionality of government action under the traditional (“private interest”) definition of standing, which requires the would-be plaintiff to have a specific personal interest in the dispute.

The would-be plaintiffs in Downtown Eastside are an organization and a former sex-worker who want to challenge the constitutionality of the Criminal Code‘s provisions relating to prostitution, which they say infringe their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, security of the person, and equality before the law. Since they neither stand accused under the Criminal Code provisions they want to challenge nor are likely to find themselves in that position, they have no “private interest” in the challenge. But, they say, they should be given standing in the public interest. The Supreme Court of British Columbia refused to do so; the Court of Appeal reversed that decision, and the government appealed. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal.

Courts can grant a would-be plaintiff public interest standing when his challenge raises serious and justiciable issues, the plaintiff has a genuine interest (in a non-technical sense―this is not a legal interest, in the sense of a personal stake) in the dispute, and, as the Supreme Court put it in Minister of Justice of Canada v. Borowski, [1981] 2 S.C.R. 575 at 598, “there is no other reasonable and effective manner in which the issue may be brought before the Court.” But, as Justice Cromwell explains in his opinion for the unanimous Court, “no” here doesn’t quite mean no.

Rather, than a categorical bright-line rule, the test is a flexible standard, requiring the court to assess “whether, in all the circumstances, the proposed suit is a reasonable and effective way to bring the issue before the courts” (par. 37). This still allows the courts to accomplish the purposes of the rules on standing: to keep away “mere busybodies” (more hypothetical than real, says the Court) and economize judicial resources; to ensure that courts will be expose to a full adversarial debate; and to keep them within the bounds of their constitutional role. At the same time, it helps enforce “the principle of legality,” which requires constitutional and statutory authorization for government action, by ensuring that no unconstitutional or illegal action can permanently escape a legal challenge.

Justice Cromwell provides (par. 51) a helpful, albeit non-exhaustive, list of factors to be taken into account in deciding “whether the proposed suit is a reasonable and effective way to” litigate an issue. These include a would-be plaintiff’s “capacity to bring forward a claim,” the possibility that the litigation would bring before the courts an issue affecting those too disadvantaged to litigate on their own behalf, and the existence of alternative avenues for the issues, and the perspective a would-be plaintiff brings on these issues, to be brought before the court―in practice, not in theory.

Applying these considerations to the would be-plaintiffs in Downtown Eastside, Justice Cromwell finds that they favour granting them public interest standing. In particular, he considers that, contrary to what the trial judge had found, it would be very difficult for the same set of issues to be raised in any other manner. To be sure, individual sex workers or their clients are often charged under the Criminal Code’s prostitution provisions. But even when they challenge the constitutionality of the provisions under which they are charged, they do not―and cannot as of right―challenge the whole scheme adopted by Parliament to deal with prostitution. Nor do they have the sort of resources the would-be plaintiffs here will bring to bear. (Anyway, many of these challenges are not heard because the cases are resolved otherwise.) He also notes that, given the legal and social stigma prostitution engenders, potential individual plaintiffs are unwilling to come forward to bring a comprehensive challenge of their own volition.

This could turn out to be a very important decision―or not. The degree to which the circumstances in which sex workers find themselves prevent them from challenging the laws that affect them might be unique. And we have no way of knowing, for now, just how flexibly courts will apply the “reasonable and effective” standard Justice Cromwell articulates.

I will, at least for now, refrain from further commentary. That is, first, so as not to over-extend an already lengthy post. But second, and more importantly, because my NYU colleague, Trudeau Scholar, and wonderful person, Lisa Kerr, who worked on the winning side of this case with the Pivot Legal Society (which represents the would-be plaintiffs), will soon guest-blog about it here. I am very much looking forward to her comments. I’ll save mine for later, if there is anything left to add.