Interest Groups

Public Versus Private Interest Groups

Interest groups and organizations represent both private and public interests in the United States. Private interests usually seek particularized benefits from government that favor either a single interest or a narrow set of interests. For example, corporations and political institutions may lobby government for tax exemptions, fewer regulations, or favorable laws that benefit individual companies or an industry more generally. Their goal is to promote private goods. Private goods are items individuals can own, including corporate profits. An automobile is a private good; when you purchase it, you receive ownership. Wealthy individuals are more likely to accumulate private goods, and they can sometimes obtain private goods from governments, such as tax benefits, government subsidies, or government contracts.

On the other hand, public interest groups attempt to promote public, or collective, goods. Such collective goods are benefits—tangible or intangible—that help most or all citizens. These goods are often produced collectively, and because they may not be profitable and everyone may not agree on what public goods are best for society, they are often underfunded and thus will be underproduced unless there is government involvement. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a government corporation, provides electricity in some places where it is not profitable for private firms to do so. Other examples of collective goods are public safety, highway safety, public education, and environmental protection. With some exceptions, if an environmental interest promotes clean air or water, most or all citizens are able to enjoy the result. So if the Sierra Club encourages Congress to pass legislation that improves national air quality, citizens receive the benefit regardless of whether they are members of the organization or even support the legislation. Many environmental groups are public interest groups that lobby for and raise awareness of issues that affect large segments of the population.[15]

As the clean air example above suggests, collective goods are generally nonexcludable, meaning all or most people are entitled to the public good and cannot be prevented from enjoying it. Furthermore, collective goods are generally not subject to crowding, so that even as the population increases, people still have access to the entire public good. Thus, the military does not protect citizens only in Texas and Maryland while neglecting those in New York and Idaho, but instead it provides the collective good of national defense equally to citizens in all states. As another example, even as more cars use a public roadway, under most circumstances, additional drivers still have the option of using the same road. (High-occupancy vehicle lanes may restrict some lanes of a highway for drivers who do not car pool.)