The Public Interest

Whatever happened to the concept of “the public interest?” What about “the common good?”
In 1961 John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This statement inspired an entire generation to dedicate themselves to public service or other pursuits that helped the public-at-large ahead of narrower, selfish interests. And they thought that was a good thing to do with their lives, not a foolish waste of their time.
Many today would scoff at that notion. In the decades since JFK’s call to public service the idea of government as a force for good has been severely denigrated. For so many years conservatives and business interests have been getting their message out, trying to convince us that people should be selfish — that they shouldn’t care about others because it is up to each person to take care of themselves. They say that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper, that each person should be responsible only for themselves.
But there are some basic facts and realities that get in the way of conservative philosophy.

For example, if a person has a contagious disease and is not given treatment, each of us is at risk. This is because we really do share a common humanity. This is not only a philosophical or spiritual concept – as human beings viruses and bacteria can pass from one person to the next. If we do not provide treatment to the sick we can catch the sickness ourselves. (Many would argue that this applies psychologically and spiritually as well.) So the roots of community and mutual interest are not, as conservatives say, just an ideological concept that liberals try to force on others.
Another example of our shared interest is that it is near-impossible for a person or even a family to be self-sufficient. We just can’t by ourselves grow or raise or build everything we need to live. The traditions of neighbors raising a barn for others, of community meals, even back to tribes in which some hunt and some gather demonstrate that people just are not physically prepared to be on our own. We are meant to share and take care of each other. The conservatives are just wrong.
The American institutions that are so much under attack by conservatives today – public schools, progressive taxation, public transportation, public health, almost everything with “public” or “community” in its name, and even government itself – evolved over time as the best solutions to common problems. They didn’t just spring up out of the mind of some dictator, they were worked out by trial and error. America was founded as a country ruled by its people and We, the People built those schools and public roads and libraries and the rest of the infrastructure that conservatives deride as “tax and spending programs.” We built all of this to serve us, not to tear down or sell off (privatize) so that a wealthy few can increase their profits.
This idea of “the public interest” has merit. It is time to understand that our progressive values have proven themselves superior, time and time again. Progressive ideas are the best way to approach our problems. They are better for people and communities.
It’s just the way it is: each of us has a vital interest in the welfare of all of the rest of us.