Public Interest Group

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Public interest group

Public interest groups may be defined as those groups pursuing goals the achievement of which ostensibly will provide benefits to the public at large, or at least to a broader population than the group's own membership. Thus, for example, if a public interest group concerned with air quality is successful in its various strategies and activities, the achieved benefit--cleaner air--is available to the public at large, not merely to the group's members. The competition of interest groups, each pursuing either its own good or its conception of the public good, has been an increasingly prominent feature of American politics in the latter half of the twentieth century.

There is no single, universally applicable definition or test of the public good, and thus there is often a great deal of disagreement about what happens to be in the public interest, with different public interest groups taking quite different positions on various issues. In any particular political controversy, moreover, there may be several quite different public interests at stake. For example, the question of whether to build a nuclear-powered generator plant may involve competing public interests in the protection of the environment from radioactive waste and other dangers, the maintenance of public safety, and the promotion of economic growth, among others.

Similarly, the question of who benefits from the activities of a public interest group can also be quite complicated. Some benefits that are generally available to the public may not be equally available or accessible to everyone. If wilderness preservation groups are successful, for example, in having land set aside in, say, Maine, that land is in principle available to potential recreational users from all over the country. But people from New England will find that benefit much more accessible than people from another region.

The membership, resources, and number of active public interest groups in the United States have all increased dramatically in the previous twenty-five years. There are now well over 2,500 national organizations promoting the public interest, as determined from almost every conceivable viewpoint, in a wide variety of issue areas. Over 40 million individual members support these groups with membership fees and other contributions totalling more than $4 billion every year. Many groups find additional support from various corporations, private foundations, and governmental agencies.

This growth in the public interest sector has been more than matched by, and partly was a response to, a similar explosion in the number and activities of organized interest groups and other politically active organizations pursuing benefits available only or primarily to their own members. Public interest groups often provide an effective counter-weight to the activities of these more narrowly-oriented associations.

The growth of interest group politics has not been without its negative consequences. Some critics argue that every interest group, including "public interest groups," ultimately pursues relatively narrow goals important mainly to fairly limited constituencies. A politics based on the competition of these groups may be one in which well-organized narrow interests prevail over less well-organized broader interests. It may also produce decreased governmental performance and economic inefficiencies of various types. Public interest groups, moreover, seem to draw most of their support and membership from the middle and upper economic strata, whose interests and concerns are then disproportionately influential.

[Lawrence J. Biskowski ]



Berry, J. M. The Interest Group Society. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

Cigler, A. J., and B. A. Loomis, eds. Interest Group Politics. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1991.

McFarland, A. S. Public Interest Lobbies. Washington, DC: The American Enterprise Institute, 1976.

Schlozman, K. L., and J. T. Tierney. Organized Interests and American Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

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Public Interest Group