Private Vices, Public Policies

Policy, in its broadest definition, means “management or procedure based primarily on material interest…to guide and determine present and future decisions.” (MERRIAM-WEBSTER). This definition, however, uncovers the main issue about a policy—interest. Or even more accurately, it brings up the question of whose interest is at stake (whether by being fostered, protected, or even attacked) when enforcing a policy.

Public policy (that is, governmental actions about an issue) presupposes that public interest will ground said type of policy. Nevertheless, as political science states and history proves, such presupposition resembles more a(n American) dream than an American reality, for many policies are developed and implemented by governmental agents and public officials under influence of private interests.

Interestingly enough, not all public policies get bent by private interests. Rather, there seems to be an American political tradition regarding certain types of public policy which are commonly just warped due to private interests. The main types of public policy affected in this way belong to the realms of reins and the purse—the powers of regulations and taxes (MEDICAL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA).

For instance, environmental regulation can be regarded as the public policy most driven by private interests throughout American history when compared to most (if not all) countries. When it comes to environmental matters, the U.S. government becomes an agent for the interest group with the most momentum, with eco-hazardous industries and environmentalist radicals taking turns. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the best example of such behavior, for it will enforce further regulations for the sake of public health and safety (i.e. the Nixon administration), or de-regulate for the sake of economic prosperity of a few that supposedly “trickles down” to the public (in the Reagan years). (RESOURCES FOR THE FUTURE.ORG). If government action somewhat requires private interests to push and shape its public policy—how public is it then?

Taxes are the other branch of public policy that swerves according to privates interests luring the people in power. In other words, private interests influence who gets taxed and who doesn’t; who gets federal aids and who has to fend for themselves. Tax-cuts are the epitome of the first case, for these tend to be more of a benefit for higher-income individuals and corporations (INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE)—precisely those assisting to the fund-raisers of politicians. On the other hand, welfare programs are examples of the second case, since these entail directly handing out money to the masses (who need it, supposedly), giving the whole transaction a more “authentic” feeling of public.

The recent bailouts of financial institutions and car-makers are a weird, though not unusual, case that mixes a little of both aforementioned scenarios, for the bailouts meant giving money to private corporations under a flag that it was a matter of public interest (if not of national security) to prevent their economic down-going. (THE ECONOMIST) Again, the question lingers, hanging like Empedocles’ sword: how much of these policies, connected to private interest, is really public?

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