The New Yorker is running an essay by Nicholas Lemann (hat tip to Douthut) which discusses the largely-forgotten work of Arthur Bentley, particularly The Process of Government: A Study in Social Pressures.
Bentley's thesis is that such political sacred cows as class, "the people," "the popular will," and "the public" have no real content. There are no such things. He even thinks that from a political standpoint, biological factors including race and gender don't make much of a difference either. Why? Because opinions--and biology--i.e. what people think and what people are, don't matter: only actions do. He even argues that there is no such thing as "the public interest" because "there is nothing which is literally best for the whole people."
Under Bentley's analysis, politics is simply the result of the interaction between interest groups. There is no such thing as non-partisan politics. As Lemann paraphrases, "You can talk about Presidents, parties, and other major political actors, but only if you understand them chiefly as mediums through which interest groups operate." Any discussion of morality is "almost always a cover for somebody's interest."
Truer words were never spoken. Any time someone, regardless of their political orientation, says that their favored policy is "for the greater good" or "in the public interest," all they're really doing is saying that they should get their way and you shouldn't.
Interestingly, though the pundit and political class talks as if this weren't true (they act like it is, but they talk like it isn't) and most of the American population seems to believe as if it's true, the courts have long been wise to this. There are many government agencies who are charged to promulgate regulations "in the public interest." To my knowledge, the only time a proposed regulation or arbitration has been struck down on those grounds is if the agency really hasn't done its homework. If it has, "the public interest" means "whatever the agency wants to do at this point." This is because judges, who are forced to be pretty careful about their definitions if they don't want to be overruled, have all basically realized that "the public interest" doesn't have any rigorous definition worth mentioning.
Read the whole thing. It's great.Posted by ryan at August 4, 2008 10:53 AM