Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In the Public Interest

The whole question of what is in the public interest is an intriguing one-and Theodore Lowi's classic book, The End of Liberalism, seeks to address this intrigue. Lowi feels that the interplay of interests in what he describes quite appropriately as, "interest group liberalism," falls far short of achieving what he feels to be the over all public good-a concept that he believes to both tangible and knowable.

In our view, without getting into a deep philosophical discussion of Plato and his belief that such a Good could be understood and imparted as part of a program to reform society, Lowi's belief is at best a utopian one; or at worst a dystopian idea that can lead to the violent wrenching of societal institutions in the service of political reconstruction animated by such "ideals."

In reality, we not only believe that the public interest is achieved through the rough and tumble of competing interests in a democratic market place of ideas and interests, we also don't think that there is any transcendent Good that can or should be imposed on a society-and the concept always falls on the question of just who can be relied on to devise the notion of the Good. Or, more pointedly, who's got the chops for being so far above and better than all of the rest of us, that we can cede to this special someone the role of Arbiter.

This is, by the way, a fairly long digression into a discussion of the news this morning that NYPIRG-better known as the New York Public Interest Group-has taken umbrage at the way in which the Save New York coalition has organized itself: "The group is organized as a not for profit, which under the rules, does not have to disclose donors. As long as it's not actively endorsing specific legislation, it also does not have to register as a lobbying entity with the state ethics panel. But government reform groups questioned that status. Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the committee, is raising and spending millions of dollars, with the intent of promoting the specifics of the governor's agenda, it's website provides a link to e-mail state legislators, and it's even hired a lobbyist. "If you walk like a duck and you quack like a duck, it's a duck," said Horner."

Let's clear the air on this. The idea that NYPIRG should arrogate to itself the mantle of reform is as credible as the group's claim-embedded in the organization's name-to be speaking in the public interest. In reality, the groups has a distinctively liberal and anti-business agenda that serves some interests but abjures others-and in our thirty years of observing these folks we have never, that's never as in nunca, advocated on behalf of business-any business.

Now, we are not saying-as the oft and wrongly quoted Charles Wilson of GM once said-that was is good for GM is naturally also good for America. But we also believe that somewhere embedded in the concept of  public interest, is the idea that business prosperity is at the very least a contributing factor to its achievement. So, NYPIRG's haughty expropriation of the term, given its hostility to commerce of any kind, is an affront-and the media should be wary of categorizing the group as anything but a liberal interest organization.

The NY Post captures this in its editorial today-and hits at NYPIRG"s hypocrisy in attacking the SNY committee as well: "So the committee's enemies -- backed by an ostensible voice of reform, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and other so-called good-government groups -- are muttering about a supposed unholy secret alliance between the new governor and the business community. "It appears that they are coordinating with the governor and they are doing this to help the governor and maybe even at the request of the governor," complained NYPIRG's Blair Horner. "We don't know who's involved in this." Actually, much more is known about who's involved in the Committee to Save New York than about who funds NYPIRG -- which isn't required to disclose its funding sources, and doesn't."

And we have a glimmer of an idea that NYPIRG's sticklishness over SNY's disclosures can actually be traced to the "reform" group's hostility to both SNY's and the governor's agenda. As the Post points out: "But the larger issue isn't who's financing efforts to aid Cuomo in his bid to bring New York's runaway spending and taxes under control -- it's who's already busy organizing to fight him. Polls suggest the public strongly supports the governor's efforts. But the special interests spend millions every year fighting responsible state government; this year will be no different. Which is why Cuomo needs -- and deserves -- all the help he can get."

In our view-and it reflects the views of most New Yorkers-the public interest would be served if NY State did a 180 on its current path to bankruptcy. Instead of hectoring SNY, Mr. Horner should tell us all where NYPIRG stands on the governor's reform agenda-and at the same time, tell us where its own funding comes from, and how it decides what issues it feels are in the public interest.

Put simply, NYPIRG has no right to camouflage its particular special interests under a good government and public interest cloak. Once it discloses its own agenda, funding and biases, than the group can wax eloquent on transparency in government. Until it does, however, silence would be appreciated-and, in the interim, little Blair Horner should sit in a corner.