Who Serves the Public Interest?

The Washington Post refers to Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen as “a public-interest group” in an article on costly federal regulations that the group is defending. So I wondered: Does the Post think federal regulation is always in the public interest? Or that groups that defend regulation are really acting “in the public interest”? What about groups that work to reduce the burden of government on consumers or taxpayers? Are they “public interest groups”? Certainly, as a member of the public, I don’t really see bigger, costlier government and more expensive products as being in my interest.

So I went to Nexis to investigate. Sure enough, in the past year the Post has used the phrase “public interest group[s]” 41 times. In every case (except one Associated Press story), the groups were on the political left. They demanded more spending or regulation by the federal government, actions that some but not all people would say are in the public interest.

I don’t always disagree with these “public interest groups.” For instance, one story quoted the Media Access Project. They almost always support more regulation of media companies, except when the question is regulation of obscenity or profanity. In this story MAP, “a public interest group,” applauded a court ruling striking down an FCC ruling that the use of profanity on a Fox News broadcast was indecent. Hear, hear. Now if only MAP would defend the rights of media companies to make their own decisions on non-obscene broadcasting.

But how about the National Taxpayers Union, which works to eliminate wasteful spending and reduce the burden of government? Was it a public interest group? Not in the Post. How about the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which works for competition and more choice for consumers? Not a public interest group.

The Post seems to have a very consistent but arguably wrong-headed view about just what is in the public’s interest.