President Obama is complaining that the “special interests” are threatening his as-yet uncertain health care proposals. (Recall there is no Senate bill and nothing says that House bill won’t change significantly.)
There is an interesting lesson here. What is meant by “special interests” and “general interests”? For the classical liberal the general interest means the interests of each individual. Of course, this will be only approximated in many specific cases. However, the idealization is a useful guide. It is closely related to the great economist Knut Wicksell’s unanimity principle: A tax should be imposed for a public (goods) purpose only if it can command universal consent.
Concretely, what does this mean? Property rights and the transfer of property only by consent are examples of general principles (rules) that are in the interests of each and all. We all benefit from the social cooperation they make possible.
Accordingly, very few of the functions of the government today are in the general interest.
Obama wants to continue and expand redistribution of burdens in health care. The poor and middle class will benefit. The “rich” will pay. Forget for a moment the obvious falsity of the claim. Let’s take the rhetoric literally. Such a program is not in the general interest. It allows the beneficiaries to throw the costs of their health care onto others. Such a plan does not pass even the approximate unanimity test.
Today’s statist liberals reinterpret the “general interest” as something quite vague. Among the possibilities are the following. (1) Those interests that will enable me to get elected; (2) Those interests that survive the test of a more equitable distribution of wealth according to wealth-distribution philosophers; (3) Those interests which are more important in some utilitarian sense – the people who want more heal thcare will be made happier than those who are taxed for it are made less happy – according to someone’s hedonic-meter; (4) Some interests are “objectively” more important than others according to, say, Professor Amartya Sen.
I am sure there are more, but you see the pattern. These are “top-down” conceptions of the general interest. The classical liberal conception is “bottom up.”
The point is simply this. When we leave the classical liberal conception of the general interest everything is special interest.
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