by Christine Trost and Alison L. Gash (eds). New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 276pp. Hardback. $80.00/£50.00. ISBN: 9780521881425. eBook format. $64.00. ISBN: 9780511380990.
Reviewed by Whitley Kaufman, Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Email: Whitley_Kaufman [at] uml.edu.
Plato in his REPUBLIC famously declared that, in a well-governed state, the rulers must be philosophers. Though he is often mocked for believing that only people like him should be allowed to rule, in fact Plato was addressing the problem of conflict of interest in public life. For only the philosopher, Plato believed, was capable of transcending self-interest and acting purely with regard to justice. In this new book from Cambridge University Press, we are treated to an excellent overview of this problem as it is handled in modern democracies. This book helps demonstrate how difficult a problem this is, and how much more work needs to be done.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST AND PUBLIC LIFE is a welcome contribution to this neglected debate. The book, edited by Christine Trost and Alison Gash, is intelligently organized around a series of different approaches by its contributors; some take an empirical approach in examining what sort of techniques are used in regulating conflicts, others a normative ethical outlook attempting to derive a general moral theory of conflicts. The collection also provides a welcome and informative comparative international focus, with case studies of the United States, Canada, Britain, and Italy. The focus on Europe and North America is presumably because it is only in the advanced democracies that we see substantial conflict of interest regulation (although it would have been interesting to see a little more discussion of this issue, or more mention of the problem as it appears in other cultures, such as Africa or Asia). The contributions to this volume are of uniformly high quality. Most of them are in the field of political science or law (it would perhaps also have been helpful to have an economist analyze conflict of interest in terms of the distortion of incentives and the resulting loss of economic efficiency). The commentators do not always respond to each others’ entries; for instance Colin Macleod analyzes conflicts in terms of an ideal of deliberative democracy, neglecting Karen Getman and Pamela Karlan’s observation that one might also adopt a pluralist, interest-group model of democracy. As with any collected volume, the approach can be somewhat scattershot, but on the whole the book presents an outstanding overview of the many difficult issues associated with conflict of interest. Especially wise is the decision to present a final chapter which attempts a summary and overview of the issues.
Conflict of interest is a perplexing idea. We lack a clear definition of [*678] conflict of interest or a clear theory of what sorts of conflict are wrong, let alone how best to regulate it without compromising democratic values. Consider the apparently simple problem of distinguishing private interest from public interest. If a politician pursues legislation that would benefit himself or his family at the cost of the public interest, that would seem to be a clear conflict. But what if the legislation benefits his constituents at the cost of the public interest (say a pork barrel project)? On the pluralist model, that is what politicians are expected to do. On the deliberative democracy model, it would seem to be a clear example of a conflict, even though it is unlikely that it would ever be treated as one. Or what if a politician supports a bill that he thinks is bad for the country simply because he wants to be reelected? On its face, this seems to be a conflict of interest, yet it is unlikely it would ever be treated as such. And what is to count as a “private interest”? Does it mean the interests of oneself, close friends, and family members? What about a broader group with which one is associated (say, Greek-Americans)? And does private interest encompass more than financial gain? Things can get quite bizarre when a very broad view of private interest is taken; as Gillian Peele reports, in a British case it was ruled that one has a private interest whenever one’s well-being is enhanced by the outcome of a decision (p.184). Taken to its extreme, this would mean that a politician with strong environmentalist leanings would have to recuse himself from any decision that might affect the environment one way or another, because his personal well-being will be affected by it. This is clearly the reductio ad absurdam of the idea of private interest, and yet it is difficult to come up with a clear definition of “private interest” that would avoid this result. Further, as some of the contributors note, the very notion of a “public interest” is itself deeply contested and extremely difficult to define.
And then there is the problem of the relation between conflict of interest regulation and democracy. If the voters have chosen a particular representative, to force that representative to recuse herself from an important decision is to restrict the sovereignty of the popular choice. Things are even worse when the voters seem to have chosen their representative even knowing of the conflict of interest. Moreover, as one of the commentators points out, conflict of interest seems to be far more of a concern among the elites than among the common populace. Further, conflict of interest issues regularly become politicized, as politicians use ethics charges as means to discredit their political opponents (this raises the problem of a conflict of interest in conflict of interest regulations!).
The reader may well finish this book feeling more confused than ever about the topic of conflict of interest (at least, that is how this reader felt). But that is by no means a criticism of the book, but rather an indication of the deeply contested and problematic nature of the issue, as well as the embryonic stage of debate. This book is a welcome contribution to the literature and will no doubt stimulate much more work in this extremely important and surprisingly neglected field.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Whitley Kaufman.