As you can see, my publishing rate is slumping even more than France’s economy. Which is saying something. Anyway, here’s some thought about a concept I’m getting tired of seeing thrown around.

The concept of “general interest” is probably one of the most overused ones when debating politics. If you’re a libertarian, you’ve probably been accused of “not caring about the general interest”. Statists will often say that “individual liberty shouldn’t trump the general interest”, that free markets are bad because “they’re about greed and profit, not the general interest” and that some economic sector should be a state monopoly because “it’s the general interest”.

What’s this “general interest”? Does it mean something? A common libertarian objection is that it actually doesn’t mean anything and only “individual interests” exist, and that these interests would be “harmonic” for the most part unless the great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else that is the State intervenes . Another common answer is that if this general interest exists, it would be derived from all the individual interests, so it would be impossible for a single person or group to “compute” it and say “I know what the general interest is and how we can achieve it”, for the same reasons it’s impossible for a single person or group to plan the whole economy.

Does the general interest have a precise definition? It doesn’t seem to have one. Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. “The interest of the nation”. “The interest of Humanity”. “The interest of the Planet”. “The interest of the proletariat”. So on and so forth. We might go with an utilitarian definition “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” but it begs a lot of questions. How do you discover it? The consensus seems to be majority vote, but the problem is still the same. Who can vote? Is it still general when so many people don’t or can’t vote? If the result of the vote is something like 50.1% vs 49.9%(Switzerland had 50.4% vs 49.6% not so long ago so I’m not stretching it that far), is it that general? Does majority vote actually does help discovering the general interest? I don’t even need to go into Godwin territory here, after all, Georges Bush, François Hollande and Silvio Berlusconi and all their ilk all got elected. Can we have a super computer compute the general interest like some Venus project whatever guys apparently think?

It only gets worse. Let’s accept a definition, the utilitarian one for example, and not question it. There’s another problem : it actually is completely worthless as an argument. Because you can proclaim that your idea X is in the general interest and it’s impossible to verify it. Ask socialists, fascists, conservatives, communists, libertarians(if they accept the premise that there is a general interest), they’ll all tell you they defend the general interest, or that “society as a whole would be better off” if their policies are enacted. And you can’t really prove or disprove any of them, even the stupid ones such as the radical ecologist notion that we need to somehow shrink the world population back to 500 million people. It’s the political equivalent of the atheist vs theist argument.

Saying you “defend the general interest” doesn’t do anything more as an argument than saying “I mean well”. And frankly, who cares if you “mean well”. I hear this every time a (far)left policy fails, “but they meant well”. Doesn’t matter to me, probably doesn’t matter to anyone who has to put up with said failures. In my opinion, intentions aren’t important, the means and outcomes are. Of course outcomes matter more than intentions. If you come up with the cure for cancer, I don’t care if you were in it for the money.  If you fuck up the economy beyond recognition, I don’t care if you wanted to help the poor and the downtrodden. And these outcomes are largely determined by the means you used. The general interest argument is useless because it doesn’t say anything about the means(it even sort of implies the terrible notion that the end justifies the means) and assumes the outcome is gonna be positive without anything to back it up.

So, what is the concept of general interest good for if it’s such a worthless argument? It’s actually very good for smear and denial. Basically, the only use of this argument in a politics debate is to shame people into agreeing with you or poison the well. “I defend the general interest and you disagree with me so you don’t care about the general interest! You only care about your own selfish desires!”. And there you are, having to “prove” that you’re not such a terrible person instead of actually making your point.

I also mentioned denial. We’re entering pseudo-psychology territory here and it’s just me spinning my wheels but I might as well mention it. There are people who defend what are, from my point of view at least, deeply immoral positions. Consider taxation. If you’re here, you probably agree that taxation is theft, because it’s about taking someone’s property without his consent, using force, so it’s immoral and shouldn’t exist. These people are also guilty of cognitive dissonance, because they claim to be against theft. So how can you actually hold the position that taxation is good and needed and deal with the cognitive dissonance? You have to reject the whole statement or parts of it, so you have to deny a fact(taxation is theft) or address a moral issue(the immorality and existence of said theft), or both, and this is when the general interest comes into play.

  • It’s not theft when the State does it, because General Interest
  • It’s theft but it’s not immoral, because General Interest
  • It’s not theft because most  people consent to it, and the ones who don’t have to comply, because General Interest

And if you’re talking to a minarchist, he’ll probably say that taxation is theft and is immoral, but it’s a necessary evil. Because you have to pay for the Night Watchman State. Because General Interest.

I guess the title gave it away but I really hate the general interest argument and I wish people stopped using it so we could actually have an interesting, reason-and-evidence based debate.