Jul 17 2013

Self-interest vs. the public interest


Reform Party of California Essay

Although politics is complicated, only a few factors tend to exert a consistent, significant influence on many or most political issues and outcomes. One factor is ideology and another is the influence of special interest money. This essay begins to consider the third main factor, which is the natural human trait of self-interest and how that affects the public interest. Collectively, these three factors or their absence, alone or together, are primarily responsible for what goes well and what doesn’t. To a large extent they also explain why.


Being self-interested is a normal human trait. It can make sense to be self-interested in many contexts, including politics. The framers of the constitution were aware of this and they struggled with the balance between new concepts of self-interests and older concepts of civic virtue to promote the public interest. There is modern research dedicated to trying to understand the reality and impact of political self-interest on politics. The stakes can be high when self-interest is not acknowledged and addressed. Although the existence of political self-interest is essentially never mentioned in modern politics, evidence of its scope and power is overwhelming.

For example, a 1999 study of political self-interest in environmental law finds that elected officeholders often do have an incentive to respond to constituencies who support environmental protection laws. Despite the incentive to serve the public will, the study concludes that for the most part those officeholders typically respond with environmental pork barreling and symbolism. That can be adequate adequate to satisfy the politician’s needs, e.g., public approval and votes in the next election. The reasons for this soft response are complicated and nuanced but they include misplaced incentives for politicians. Specifically, our political system does not always provide incentives that politicians need to support efficient environmental policies. Incentives drive behavior[1] and if incentives are aligned to support inefficient policies, inefficiency is what tends to result. In short, political self-interest does not always align with the public interest. That assumes that efficient policies is in the public interest. The Reform Party of California (RPCA) believes that there are more occasions when more efficiency is clearly warranted.

It is worth mention that on rare occasions, a politician does come out and simply admit that self-interest can or does trump service to the public interest. Typically, those admissions come from politicians who are out of power, e.g., termed out of office, defeated in reelection or not running for reelection. Under those circumstances, they have less to lose by coming clean. One example comes from former California democratic legislative leader Willie Brown. After being termed out of office, he remarked that the civil service system was “set up so politicians like me couldn’t come in and fire the people (relatives) hired by the guy they beat and replace them with their own friends and relatives. Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide for most officeholders.” It may be officeholder career suicide, but it is nonetheless important that the public knows and understands things like this.

Another example comes from former democratic U.S. senator Max Cleland (D-GA) and his vote in October of 2002 to authorize the Iraq Resolution, thereby helping to legitimize the Iraq war. Mr. Cleland admitted[2] that he voted in favor of invading Iraq, even though he was not convinced by the Bush administration’s evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He admitted he did that partly because of deference to the Bush administration and partly because of political self-interest in his bid for reelection the following month (November 2002). To his credit, Mr. Cleland said that he will regret that vote for the rest of his life. Based on his comments, it is reasonable to assume that Mr. Cleland would have voted against authorizing war in Iraq if his political self-interest was not a factor. It would be no surprise to learn that more than just one senator voted like Mr. Cleland at least in part for the same reason. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect that kind of candor from most U.S. senators.

Even among political moderates who often rail against the status quo as something broken, self interest appears to be a major factor in what they do and don’t do. When asked to run for president on a third party platform (Americans Elect for the 2012 election), moderates including Olympia Snowe, Michael Bloomberg and Evan Bayh all shied away. In the opinion of some participants and press observers, reluctance to take on the two-party system was at least partly due to self-interest; “Everyone agreed that the system is broken, . . . . The problem is that their risk aversion was too high. There’s a fear of retribution if you break with your party.” . . . . . “Retribution? Sure. Not like in Syria, where dissidents are shot, or Russia, where they’re merely jailed. But in Washington, a failed third-party presidential candidate could become a pariah — no Cabinet job, no ambassadorship, no consulting clients, no seats on corporate boards.”

Self-interest and the RPCA

Although both parties and their politicians ignore the issue or deny that self-interest is a significant factor in how we got to where we are, the balance of the evidence does not accord with that argument. It may be the case that much self-interested action or inaction is subconscious, but it is nonetheless there. It is always there because that is simply human nature. This isn’t just limited to parties and politicians. It is there in special interest groups, including non-profits groups who claim to operate only in the public interest. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of issue and tried to deal with it. The question is what, if anything should or could be done about it today.

Since this is largely a matter of human nature, the RPCA believes that that aspect of the situation cannot be fundamentally changed. Human beings are human beings. There seem to two major choices. One is to ignore self-interest or assume it isn’t relevant or cannot be affected. The other is to accept reality for what it is and try to work with it in ways that best serve the public interest. Acknowledging the existence and impact self-interest in politics is not intended to be a criticism of this aspect of human nature.[3] That is tantamount to criticizing people for being human. That is pointless and a waste of time.

A general approach to blunting the adverse impact of self-interest in politics is to better align incentives to reward more efficient service to the public interest, when it is possible to do that. That may sound vague, but it goes straight to the heart of what drives self-interested behavior, i.e., the drive for reward. It should be possible to establish incentives to at least partially shape political behavior. Rewards will vary but in politics, election and reelection are typically at or near the top of what drives behavior. Subsequent essays will deal with this issue in more focused contexts. That will make the RPCA’s rationale clearer. For now, it suffices to raise and acknowledge the issue because of its scope and importance.


There is a fairly high level of discontent with two-party politics, e.g., discontent with congress, president Obama, and both political parties. Given the  discontent, and an almost complete lack of discussion about the the role of self-interest in politics, it is reasonable to assume that neither party is interested in talking about it. It is unseemly to mention the possibility that self-interest affects what politicians and political parties do. That is why essentially all politicians in office and planning for reelection will deny that self-interest has or will affect anything they do. Unfortunately, the two parties and elected politicians presumably see an uninformed public as best for maintaining their power and the status quo in general. Either that, or they cannot see this as something that merits attention.

Either way, the two-party approach to this issue differs fundamentally from the RPCA approach. The RPCA sees two-party silence on this issue as a great disservice to the American public. Failing to see problems or seeing them but pretending they are not there does not serve the public interest. The two-party system may be content to pretend that there is no elephant in the room. The RPCA clearly sees the elephant and intends to render it less damaging to the public interest to the extent it is possible and reasonable to do so. It is likely the case that inefficiencies coming from self-interest will never be completely eliminated. Despite that, there is no reason to believe that the situation cannot be improved. Dealing with this requires careful realignment of incentives to reward politicians (and maybe political parties) for service to the public interest before service to personal or narrower interests. However, before any of that can be done the problem must first be recognized and understood.[4] The two-party system is nowhere close to that recognition.

1. Discussion of this point is beyond the scope of this essay. However, an example that most people will understand is the drive of individuals and legal entities such as corporations to minimize their tax payments to state and the federal governments. Billions of dollars and millions of person-hours are spent each year pursuing that incentive. Conscious or not and “rational” or not, incentives drive a great deal of behavior, maybe nearly all of it. Obviously, what is rational to one person might be nonsense to another.

2. Cleland’s comments regretting his vote to authorize the Iraq war. Other comments on the vote. Cleland’s interview with Terry Gross in 2006 on Fresh Air – his Iraq war vote is discussed at about 14:15 to 19:02 of the interview. The irony is that despite Cleland’s vote for war in Iraq, Georgia voters tossed him out of office in November 2002 after a vicious, brutal campaign mounted by Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).

3. None of this is an assertion that all people are the same. They obviously are not. People will vary in the degree to which self-interest drives their behavior and when it does affect behavior, how it is manifest with respect to the public interest. Acts of self-interest can be good, bad or neutral to the public interest. This is probably true in part because self-interest isn’t strictly logical or money-centric all of the time. Multiple factors are at play.

4. The RPCA gives this issue significant weight to raise public awareness and to provide context for how the RPCA approaches political issues and problems, e.g., in campaigns, in budget fights and in immigration policy with party vs. politician self-interests sometimes at cross purposes. The RPCA believes that the balance of political self-interest vs. the public interest is currently tipped too far against the public interest and the issue merits attention. This is true at least at the California state and U.S. national levels. This is not to impugn the integrity of politicians or to question their patriotism. Despite his regrettable vote in 2002, former senator Cleland is a patriot and an honorable person. This issue is grounded in normal human behavior. Unless this is at least acknowledged, adverse effects on the public interest are hidden or unknown. If the adverse effects are unknown, there is no reason or incentive to improve the situation.