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'Public interest' = political power?

I have been reading an article by American professor of government, Lynton Caldwell. The article, published in 1963, is thought to be the the first place that "environmental policy" was discussed as a "thing". Well into the 1970s, what we would today call environmental policy was fragmented across a range of other spheres: urban planning, infrastructure development, wastewater management, national parks management, and so on. No one in government thought about the environment as a whole - in fact "environment" in the sense of the natural and built environment only took on this meaning in the 1970s. So a lot has changed since then.

And, arguably, a lot hasn't. I was struck by this passage in Caldwell's essay:

The administrative dilemma in environmental decisions, and it is also a legislative dilemma, is that public decisions must be taken as if there were a generally accepted, guiding concept of the public interest by which the "rightness" of the decision could be measured. But, neither our law, our political tradition, nor the predominant elements of our cultural heritage provide such a guiding concept. And so, on environmental issues affecting lands (urban and rural), waters, forests, wildlife, and air space, conflicting interests clash headlong in what is usually a test of sheer political strength. For want of a common denominator of differing interests, public policy makers have had to make do with rationalizations of decisions in which the public interest has, in fact, become synonymous with effective political power.

Source: "Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?" by Lynton K. Caldwell. Public Administration Review, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Sep., 1963), pp. 132-139

Image: Hoover Dam, a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, on the border between the U.S. states of Nevada and Arizona. It was constructed between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depression, and cost the lives of over one hundred workers. The interests of native American tribes of the Colorado were ignored.

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